Refugee: a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.
“Syria has become the great tragedy of this century – a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history.”
Antonio Guterres – Secretary-General of the United Nations.
Samir couldn’t tell if his eyes were open or closed. There was no pain, no sound, just darkness. A weight pressed down on him, something sharp was sticking into his leg, right at the top, he could feel it. He could feel his heart beating. He couldn’t move.
His leg begun to hurt. His right hand throbbed, especially the third finger. It was difficult to breathe. As if someone had shoved dirt in his mouth. Samir wanted to spit it out, but he had no saliva. He was thirsty.
There was no idea of time passing. Where was he? At home? And his brothers, little sister, his parents, why didn’t they come and get him?
He wanted to cry, but his eyes were dry. They were sore, filled with dust. It was hot.
Dark as night. Was it night or day? Why didn’t they come and get him out?
Light. A chink of sunlight. Growing bigger now. Sunlight – it was day!
Everything was muffled, as if he were cocooned in a huge ball of cotton.
Hands. Arms. Gripping. Lifting. Pain.
Hands gripped and pulled him. Strong, powerful arms. One under each of his own arms. Whatever was sticking into his leg scraped along the length of his thigh as they pulled him half out from the rubble.
A loud thundering roar filled the air.
The men who had climbed over the remains of the ruined building stopped.
They held their breath in that instant, and watched as the wall of the five storey apartment block fell away towards the far side.
The mushrooming cloud of dust swept over them. They renewed their effort to free the boy. One final pull. His shoulders were out of the rubble. His chest. They slid him free.
Poured water over his face.
Large, rough hands washed the dirt from his eyes and mouth.
Samir could see something, but it was so bright in the sunlight. Blinking the water from his eyes and looking up Samir saw the man in the white helmet.
He hurt. He hurt everywhere. His leg felt damp.
Again strong arms lifted him up, like a rag doll, and carried him. Gently those arms lowered him to the dirt floor.
There was shouting.
Someone pulled the sneaker off his left foot, the other one must have been lost, because he was barefoot now. His jeans being pulled down and off his skinny legs, his underpants came half way down with them.
Samir twisted his head to one side to see what they were doing to him. Looking down at his legs he noticed a pool of dirty pink water soaking into the ground. That was the last thing he remembered.
Awake again, he found himself in a dim, semi-darkness. Trying his leg, it moved! There was pain, but just a little. As he lay wiggling his toes, he heard sounds; groaning and voices, he wasn’t alone.
Samir brought his right hand in front of his face. The third finger was bent in a weird way. He couldn’t move it. Reaching down his tiny thin body with his left hand, he touched himself in different places. He wanted to check he was still in one piece.
His hand reached his thigh. Samir realised he was only half covered by torn almost non-existant underpants. He pulled them up, wanting to cover himself. He touched himself there. It seemed okay. It seemed like he was all in one piece.
The man standing next to him wanted to know his name. The boy watched him with eyes as deep as the ocean. “Samir Dweck,” he whispered.
The man bent over him. A hand came to rest on the boy’s shoulder. It reminded Samir of those large rough hands that had pulled him free and carried him. His eyes started to fill with tears as he remembered. What about his brothers, his little sister, his parents, were they all dead? Had they been pulled from the rubble?
It was as if the man knew what the boy was thinking. He gently squeezed Samir’s shoulder. “How old are you?”
“Thirteen,” Samir croaked, his throat was dry.
The man straightened. “We’ll take care of you.”
“My brothers… and,” his voice faltered.
“I’m sorry.” The man patted his thin shoulder, turned and walked away down the dimly lit corridor.
Then he realised. Remembered. Tears welled up in his eyes. His shoulders moved up and down as he sobbed. Quietly. To himself. He was alive. On the outside. On the inside he was already dead. He felt empty nothingness. The inside was as black as the blackness those strong arms had pulled him from.
He was swallowed up by the blackness, consumed by it. He must have fallen asleep. Awake again now, his right hand was wrapped in a bandage. Solid bits of wood were tied each side of his third finger, which was straight now. A patchwork of white bandages plastered the back of his left leg, from behind his knee right up and onto his bottom. He still had his torn underpants on.
The people passing in and out, like the groaning around him, never stopped. He wished he was dead. He wished god had taken him with his family. He was still breathing, but he wasn’t alive.
Samir silently cried himself to sleep again, amidst the sounds and chaos in the half light of the corridor crammed full of the injured and dying.
It was okay in the daytime, warm in the sunshine, but at night it got cold. Samir found new jeans to wear, they were too long, so he rolled them up. He also had a rough woollen jumper and sneakers, they were also a bit big, but better than nothing.
He was living in a factory, or what remained of it. A large ruined open space with no windows or doors. Sheets and other bric-a-brac were used to make walls for family groups, a sort of indoor city. It was at least covered, offered some protection against the cold nights, and would keep him dry.
Samir was on his own now, food was not available every day, and he was constantly hungry, but that was something he got used to. He didn’t even think about it anymore, at least he tried not to. That was difficult when his stomach rumbled, and worse when he smelled hot food being cooked inside one of the makeshift family homes. He hadn’t eaten any hot food in over four weeks, not since his family were killed and his home destroyed.
He often replayed those events in his head. His rescue, lying in the semi-derelict building that was used as a hospital. The sounds, they were permanently engraved in his mind; groaning, whimpers, silent pain and suffering. He remembered the man saying, ‘We’ll take care of you.’
They had fixed him up, repaired his broken finger, the splint was off now, it seemed to work just like before. It ached sometimes, but mostly it was okay. The cut along the back of his leg was healed. If there was a scar, he couldn’t see it. There were no mirrors here. He never took his clothes off, and water was not for washing. He must be pretty dirty, and smelly, but he was used to that.
With nothing to do the days were spent wandering around the ruined streets. Life here was dangerous, but he never thought about it, he was used to that too.
During the last two days he had watched as small convoys of two or three vehicles packed full of families left the city. He wondered where they were going. He thought about sneaking onboard. Why not? There was nothing here except dirt, hunger, explosions, and chaos.
He thought about killing himself. He tried it once. Stood outside in the middle of a large open square that was surrounded on every side by destroyed or half standing buildings. Willing the planes to drop a bomb there. Right in the middle of that square. He wasn’t afraid to die. It was more scary to carry on living.
But he was still here, still hungry. Watching people scramble into the back of a truck. The men with guns slung over their shoulders, helped push the women onboard, and lifted the young children.
Samir hadn’t noticed how he had moved from watching to being part of the scene. Not until someone shouted, “Get in! Get in!” So up he clambered into the back of the second truck. Thinking the people might throw him off, tell him to go, ask who he was, but nobody paid any attention.
The truck was packed full of mostly women and children. People found a place to sit or squat. Women clutched babies wrapped in cloth, or held dirty youngsters close to their side, or sitting in their lap. An old man in one corner was so old and frail, Samir wondered how he could move. The slightest touch might break his bones.
With a load roar of the engine and a jolt, the truck moved off, winding its way along the ruined streets. Samir watched out of the back as the dust swirled and billowed behind them. The city streets were replaced by a vast expanse of barren flat scrub land. The wreckage of destroyed vehicles scattered here and there on either side of the long straight highway.
Eventually he tired of watching, but carried on looking all the same, resting his chin on his arms over the back of the truck. Looking, but not seeing. He stopped that when they pulled off the tarmaced highway and bounced down on to a dirt track. The going was rough, the truck lurched dangerously. People were jolted, trying not to fall into one another.
That was the worst bit of the journey, but it was quickly over. When they stopped, the back of the truck was opened and they were ordered to get down. Samir being at the back, was one of the first off, as he scrambled out.
Moving around the truck he saw he had arrived at a camp. A city of tents. Large white tents in neat rows, each with a blue blazon on the side. Whilst everyone else got out he studied the picture on the tents.
At first he thought it was the minaret of a mosque standing in a circle of two branches of leaves, like a wreath or a corona. But then he saw it differently, as a person sheltering under two large hands that were resting in the corona. The letters on the tent read UNHCR, but he had no idea what that meant. He thought it must be English, because they learned to speak English at school, but that was a long time ago. He couldn’t remember very well those English words.
When finally everyone was off and roughly lined up, they entered the camp and were given some biscuits and water. Different families were assigned tents, often two or three groups sharing. It all depended how big the family groups were.
Names were demanded and written or checked. During this process Samir sneaked into the encampment, he didn’t want to be found out as a stowaway and punished. He’d seen the soldiers beat people. He didn’t want to die like that.