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On Being Human

September 22, 2015

They asked me to sit down and join them for grilled fish dinner.

They had no clue who I was-other than a dumb blonde wearing a pink Hello Kitty shirt,  balancing on a broken straw chair at the waters edge of a port side restaurant, trying to make a picture of hanging octopi.

“Please be careful, that chair is broken.”  His English was perfect.

Finished testing my inevitable liquid fate below, I dismounted my stand and glanced his way-to give the quick non-committal nod and a smile of acknowledgement.  He sat with a young boy,  an older boy, and a woman wearing a hijab.

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I didn’t want to engage-I was emotionally spent.  I wanted only to ensconce myself in my wildlife world, even if it was merely with dead octopi.  I tried to walk by.  But I’d seen too much in the last 24 hours, and the words simply exploded.

“Where are you from?”

We locked eyes, he knew what I was asking; knew I already knew the answer.

“We are Syrian, from Syria.” He paused, eyes sparkling, and sabotaged my next question:  “Yes, we came in as refugees, on one of the boats.”  He added quickly, “But we are still normal, we have money, we eat in the restaurants too.”

Perhaps my pause was too long, or it was the look on my face, but, he started to talk.  The conversation was raw and real-we were low on time, no reason for bullshit; a conversation one has when there is nothing left to hide;  and only reality to face.  An open explanation of identity; a conversation one has when an entire life is left behind and, the search for a new one has begun.

The four of them had come onto Lesvos island the night before on an overfilled black dinghy from Turkey, for which they paid 1200 dollars per person for passage.

“Our boat capsized; it turned over.”

His accent was barely apparent—he could have been Greek; could have been from any other European country, could have been my neighbor in Washington, DC.

He went on, as if we’d known each other for more than the four delicate minutes I’d been standing there.  “I’ve cried twice in my life; once when my mother died, and yesterday, when I saw my child and wife in the water in front of me.  I didn’t have a life jacket.  I knew that I would not be able to save them.”

I choked back my own tears.  I asked him why they left Syria.  My question sounded ignorant, but, I was desperate to hear the stories.  I’d spent the day watching black dinghys race from the Turkish shore, powering their ways like ants over the water; little torpedoes with a destination.  Some of them made it, some of them stalled and needed to be rescued, and some of them sank.  But, all were overflowing with lives coming to shore to find something better–grandmothers, grandfathers, infants, teenagers, men, women, mothers, daughters.

A Danish volunteer group welcomes a dingy with refugees from Afghanistan. Once ashore, refugees, walk several kilometers up mountain roads to get to a bus station, that takes them to one of two camps on the island. There they will be processed, and then allowed to buy ferry tickets to Athens. The procedure takes days, forcing some to sleep on the streets.

A Danish volunteer group welcomes a dinghy with refugees from Afghanistan. Once ashore, refugees, walk several kilometers up mountain roads to get to a bus station, where buses will shuttle them to one of two camps on the island. Depending on the day and the bus stop, able men and boys are turned away to walk the 50 kms to the camps on their own.  At the camps they will be registered, and then allowed to buy ferry tickets to Athens. The procedure takes days, forcing some to sleep on the streets.

I’d stood on the beach and waved with the volunteers as Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and Iranians climbed out of the water with a backpack, or a baby, or a garbage bag filled with their possessions;  while they shrieked and cried and laughed and hugged each other as their feet connected with Greece’s rocky ground.

An Afghan refugee hugs an aid worker in sheer relief of making it to shore.

An Afghan refugee hugs an aid worker in sheer relief of making it to shore.

They took selfies on the beach.  They called their families to let them know they were alive.  They hugged each other; they hugged the volunteers. They smiled at me, knowing little English, and gave me thumbs ups, and cheers, and motioned me in a universal language, to take their picture.

A Syrian family, celebrates making it ashore.

A Syrian family, celebrates making it ashore.

A Afghani refugee makes a phone call home. One of the biggest needs of refugees when they land on Grecian shores is wifi so they can send What's Ap messages to family and friends to let them know they are alive. Many of them have been on week long journeys, and this is their first contact with home.

An Afghan refugee makes a phone call home. One of the biggest needs of refugees when they land on Grecian shores is Wifi so they can send What’s Ap and Facebook messages to family and friends to let them know they are alive. Many of them have been on week-long journeys, and this is their first contact with home.

He went on.

“There is nothing left.  Our home is destroyed, my oldest son was arrested for no reason.  We had to leave-there is nothing for us anymore, everything is gone.  It is not safe.  But, in that water knowing I could not save my family, I thought, why did we leave?  I regretted leaving.  At least in Syria we would be bombed, and I could die quickly, and not watch my family drown in front of my eyes.”

He didn’t stop there.

“I want to tell you something.  I want you to tell people.  I want the world to know: we Syrians-we have money.  We have food.  We are not poor people asking for help.  We are just people.  We want a life where there are no bombs, and where we can just live.”

He is educated; he has a PHD in business.

He has family in Canada and the US; but, can’t land visas.

He is a father, a man with a family to care for, and he chose to leave.  He has no destination.  He does not know where they will go, other than, “away.”

But that night of broken chairs and sharing, they had another crucial part to their new beginning; they had boat tickets.  After the fish dinner, they would get on the ferry to Athens.

‘And then, after Athens?’  I asked.

He said Germany.  I said I’d heard the borders were closed.

He shrugged his shoulders, and lifted his hands in the air, and smiled a wonderful, sad smile sprinkled with the dust of hope; ‘We will go anywhere. It’s better than there. We will tryWe must try. That is all we can do.’

He asked again if I’d join them in dining, but my colleagues were waiting.  I shook his hand, and his sons’, and his wife’s.  I wished for them strength and hope and luck, and sheepishly gave him my card, with the true hope that one day I will hear from him; one day I’ll receive an email that says, ‘we are well, and safe, and happy.’

I felt useless and somehow ashamed.

He asked me to take a picture of him and his sons.  I snapped just to snap; and now wish I’d done more.

But, my regret is even larger:  I do not know his name.

I hope that one day I will.

I hope that one day, we all learn to ask for names first; and share stories, and put aside our paranoia, and fears, and be Human, to each other.

I hope that one day, we can all know, what it’s like, to be human.

My friend, and his sons, and their grilled fish dinner.

My friend, his sons, and their grilled fish dinner.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. September 22, 2015 17:18

    This brought me to tears Karine. I love your heart and love your spirit. You are such a force in the world, doing your part to bring light to dark places. I am proud to know you.

    • September 22, 2015 17:26

      Katy-thank you for your kind words. This was way out of my comfort zone of my wildlife creatures … but, when your feet stand where the newspaper stories happen, and you see it with your own eyes, it’s hard to ignore, and it takes on an entirely new reality. Everyone should be required to see the strife that is happening–no matter what it s. To hear it, to feel it, to touch it with their own hands and eyes….maybe that will be more powerful to the many than the paper stories that we can just flip over to page two. It affected me. And this man affected me. All I can do, is tell his story, which is what he asked me to do. Thank you for being such a supporter!

  2. September 22, 2015 17:58

    Such a sensitively written piece, Karine and clearly from the heart. Thank you. It is far too easy to demonise fellow humans by calling them migrants, economic migrants and worse. Make people into a subarea and then it seems to justify treating them appallingly …as has happened in Hungary and today in France…tear gas a riot police first, questions (if any) later. Of course we should react with humanity simply because these are fellow humans in distress…it should not matter that they are educated people, just like we are. But it helps to have that pointed out: these are desperate people who realised they face obliteration and so they take the supreme risk. To read some accounts you’d think they forsook their homes and possessions just for fun. America was built on the energy and determination of people from other countries – they have energy, want to work and are risk takers: they have shown that already. They do not want to exist on handouts they want to contribute and that could be of such great value to a recipient country where politicians have the guts to take them in and ignore the xenophobes, racists and extreme right wing morons. In fact, better still do a switch and export that element of population and take in the new….Well done Karine.

  3. SAA permalink
    September 22, 2015 20:12

    Kari,
    Tears came… You write like a human. You feel like an angel. You photo like a pro. Even Lucien sends KUDOS! Thanks for the extra notification effort.
    D.

  4. Tammy permalink
    September 22, 2015 21:27

    All I can say is wow. Like Katy, this brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing his story K.

  5. Ann permalink
    September 23, 2015 00:54

    Karine-This is so real. Your descriptions put me right there. I can feel all of it! Your pictures filled in the rest of the story. I can see from their expressions that you are an important part of their story. xoxox

  6. Michelle Lemley permalink
    September 23, 2015 19:09

    That was beautiful. Thanks for sharing and caring.

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