We’ve been in transit for seven months now, in search of our next big adventure. I keep trying to document my feelings about it, and I keep coming back to the same thought.
Imagine stepping out of your comfort zone, away from all that is familiar and routine. Every morning, you wake up not knowing what’s in store for the day; whether this is the day you fulfil your dreams and live to tell the tale.
While we’re venturing out into the unknown to live out our dreams, it’s gut-wrenching to see people forced to run away from their homes in search of life. Not a better life, but life.
Now re-read the second paragraph.
I’ve been moving around so much it’s been hard for me to follow the refugee crisis on the news, but I follow Humans of New York and somehow HONY’s stories of the refugees is all that I needed to see. No political games, no war machines, no power struggles. Just people like you and me, real and unedited, scared and lost.
We were labelled refugees once. When we fled from Kuwait during the gulf war.
I was born and raised in Kuwait, it was the only home I had ever known. It was my normal. My parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. My friends, teachers and home. All mine. All tossed aside like some inconsequential childish fantasy.
Two months into our 3-month summer break, I remember waking up to see my family standing outside the apartment, staring and pointing into the distance. We’re not a quiet bunch, my family, and yet that morning you could hear the smoke rising in the distance.
After that, everything was a haze. Spending nights together with family and friends couped up in a deserted top-storey apartment. Playing cards and board games, watching movies, reading books and eating junk – it was a week of slumber parties. It was the only place my parents could find to hide their little girls.
I remember my last glance into the home I was born into. The soft brown carpet, the cream wallpaper and my Barbie refrigerator filled with Barbie shoes that didn’t make it into any bag. There was a big warm glow in the middle of the living room, like sunlight that got trapped inside when the windows were sealed shut. To me it was a ball of pure happiness and that didn’t make it into any bag, either.
Too young to grasp the weight of what was happening around us, this was an adventurous road trip. The men with guns along the roadside were there because something serious was happening further up. The vacated apartment complex we stayed at overnight was just a break from the long drive. Its long, empty corridors were perfect for roller-skating with the cousins. The hoards of people lined up along the border just didn’t get hotel reservations yet and would probably pass through within the next few hours.
We drove from Kuwait, through Iraq to Jordan in a convoy of 3 cars; 3 children, 2 women (1 pregnant) and 4 men. We were some of the lucky ones who knew someone who knew someone else who could help us out with a work permit of sorts. The little piece of paper made all the difference. Our own car instead of a bus. A room instead of a tent. Canned food instead of handouts. A bathroom instead of a hole. (Except for those few times we went on the side of the road in No Man’s Land between the borders. Not a person, not a light as far as the eye could see. Just a billion stars and eight frightened refugees.)
At every checkpoint (or soldier-with-a-gun point), my sister and I pretended to be asleep as a game, and maybe as a defence mechanism to avoid having to look a man with a gun in the eye. Not like they were looking for our approval or for our consent.
I always imagined that the hardest part for my parents in all this was getting us to safety. But now I see that that wasn’t the hardest part, that was the prayer.
Imagine getting in a car or a bus with your family – your world – and driving into a war because it’s the only way out. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get out, but if you stay, you’re in the war. You become collateral damage.
What if the only way out is by a rickety old boat? Stay and hope for a painless death or leave and give your children a chance. Even if it’s a slim chance.
But what do I know? We were going back to our motherland; our parents were taking us back home. To our families, ancestral homes and open doors. To India. And there she stood, strong and loving as the day when we left her for a better life. Now we were back, running for our lives, and she welcomed us with a kindness only a mother can have.
Not the refugees of today, they’re not running back home, they’re running from it. Begging someone to show a little kindness, to make the world a safer place for their children.
It’s not boats that arrive at our borders, it’s lives. Daughters who were saved from rape, sons who were shielded from mutilation. Men and women, desperate to breathe and love and sleep one more time.
I remember my parents knocking on a stranger’s door somewhere in the middle of war and peace. The kids needed a glass of water and to use the toilet and to get out of the car that was now a portable oven. I can only imagine their relief when the woman who opened the door greeted us with compassion.
I now know that there was a government order to not entertain refugees. It was a punishable offence.
That day the Iraqi woman, in her floral dress and loving home, gave us bread, water and a lesson in kindness.
Yet we find it hard to trust these men, women and children knocking at our shores. To open our borders, to share a meal, some space and maybe a kind word. We worry that maybe war changes even the good people. Creates monsters out of men.
I’m not a monster, but war did change me.
I learnt about rape before I learnt about sex. I knew what torture was before I knew what bullying was. I feared smoke rising from a distance more than a monster under my bed.
We found our way to safety soon. Parents tried to shield us from pain and horror as best as they could, but these things have a way of seeping into your very fibre. Through ashes in the air and fear on the faces around you.
I wasn’t a child anymore, but I was frightened like one.
Of things I couldn’t fathom, couldn’t believe and couldn’t even spell.
And I was one of the lucky ones.