I am you.
Well, obviously, I’m not. But I could be, but for an accident of birth and location.
I was cause for great celebration when I came into the world – the first-born, a boy. My father must have been grinning all over his moustache and offering cigars left, right and centre. Growing up, I was a normal boy – eating my mother’s special desserts, playing football in the streets with my friends, watching too much TV, playing too many computer games. But I worked hard at school. I went to University and got my degree. Then I got a good job as a Civil Engineer. I was someone with something to show for my efforts.
I was normal, boring even, a classic example of the aspirational middle class. Just like you, and you… and especially you.
Then ‘I’ became ‘we’. I met a girl, fell in love and married her. We now have two beautiful children – a boy and a girl – and there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for them.
Of course, every parent says that. But not every parent is forced by circumstances to prove it. We were. We still are.
At first, we thought it was a passing phase. The first protests were peaceful, sparked by the arrest of some schoolkids who had supposedly scrawled anti-Government graffiti. Stupid, yes. Excessively criminal? Not really. I didn’t really pay much attention. To be honest I was up to my ears in a special project at work and had little time or patience for the TV news droning in the corner of the lounge.
Even when the protests started spreading and becoming more general, I kept my head down, looked after my family, attended to my duties. I thought it would burn brightly but briefly, and then we would all be able to get back to our everyday lives.
That was more than four years and tens of thousands of lives ago.
Since then, more than nine million people have fled their homes. My family is just a drop in that sea of displaced humanity.
We didn’t want to leave. I love the land where I grew up, I loved the life I had once had there, mundane though it seemed at the time. My parents are old now and unwell. If they’re still alive – I have no idea. They couldn’t leave, and even if they could, I’m sure they wouldn’t. My father is probably the most stubborn man ever born and my mother would never leave his side. So, now there is no-one to pass on the secret family recipe for the best honey and almond cake in the world.
But as the fighting got fiercer, work dried up and the schools closed (some reduced to piles of rubble), every day brought home the unavoidable truth. If my children were to have a chance of a future, we would have to leave, abandoning everything we had ever worked for in exchange for… who knew what?
So we left. Sold everything we could, mostly for a fraction of its worth, and gave the rest away to those who stayed. The children understood, and were stoic, but that didn’t stop my boy melting into a pool of hysterical tears when he had to say goodbye to his pet rabbit. For three days, he sat red-eyed and tear-streaked by the hutch, talking to the animal, telling it to run away to the hills around our town to escape the hungry people left behind.
We joined a convoy heading westwards. At first, we crowded onto a bus ‘liberated’ from the local municipality, sometimes travelling through areas where we knew a stray bullet would bring another life to an end, sometimes driving through the night without lights for fear of attracting unwelcome attention. Then, one day, the fuel ran out and we had no choice but to continue on foot.
I have no idea how long or how far we walked. I lost track of the days, and only the dialects of the locals watching us with suspicion as we passed marked the changing places we walked through. Some watched with pity, then turned away. Others offered a smile and maybe a bottle of water or a plate of food for the children. Once, we reached a camp with tents that stretched as far as the eye could see. We stopped, were fed, and a man with tears brimming in his exhausted blue eyes tried to explain that there was no room for us. His Arabic was dreadful, but I managed to remember enough of my schoolboy French and English to thank him anyway.
One of our group, a University lecturer before he fell foul of the authorities, said he had heard that if we could get to the coast, we could find people willing to get us across the Mediterranean and the promise of safety. For a price. But who wouldn’t give everything they have to make sure their kids are safe?
So we carried on walking. For days, I forget how many. Until one afternoon, a cry from the front made us look up to see a bright blue something sparkling on the horizon. The sea. Our pace picked up and by evening we had reached the coast, and had taken off our battered shoes to paddle in the waves lapping at the shore.
We set up camp as well as we could in a car park near the beach. After the initial excitement of reaching the sea, the children settled back into their somber, silent games of make-believe before surrendering to sleep at their mother’s side. Somewhere in the middle of the camp, we heard the heart-wrenching keening of a women. A glimpse from my wife told me it was probably the young widow who had been struggling to nurse her sickly new-born throughout the trip, as her desperate hope was snuffed out with her child’s life.
In the morning, a man arrived in a jeep. He and his helpers went from family to family, explaining that they could get us to Europe. We unpicked the cash sewn into our clothes and handed it over for the promise of life jackets and a place on a boat for us all the next day. They also demanded our papers. Meekly, we obeyed. We could nothing else, given the rifles they carried. I doubted we’d ever seen them again.
To my surprise, we did. They arrived early the next day with a flotilla of trucks to take us to the ship waiting for us at the port. But when we arrived, the ‘port’ was an abandoned wooden jetty held up by rusting iron legs and the ‘ship’ was an open boat that looked like a large dhow. Surely that wasn’t what was going to get us across the Mediterranean? one of the women asked. But it was, and we were piled aboard.
I had read about sea-sickness before but nothing had prepared me for the reality. I thought I was tough. I thought that I had been through the worst but those days at sea were like nothing I’d ever known. The constant rolling and pitching. Feeling my stomach shift to my throat with every lurch of the boat. Losing the horizon. Consoling the kids in between heaving over the side. The constant thirst. The raw scrape of sea water in our clothes against our skin.
Then, as dawn broke, a shout of triumph. Ahead was an island. A big one, its coast laced by beaches and little towns with white-painted houses. The edge of Europe. Our destination, our salvation.
To my surprise, we were steered away from the pretty fishing port I could see to the west and taken to a deserted beach where we landed and were told to get out.
Eyed smudged with nausea and lack of sleep opened wide at the sensation of standing on solid ground again after so many days at sea. Some couldn’t stand at first. I had to hold my daughter’s hand as we scrambled ashore. She was disorientated, disheveled, scared. But we had arrived. We had survived.
We walked up the beach and sat in the shade of the trees that fringed it. Beyond was a road, and after a couple of hours’ rest, we decided to walk westwards to the village we had seen.
So, that’s how I came to be here, on this island, trying to explain in my broken English to an over-stretched policemen with an equally halting grasp of the language why we have no papers.
He says I have no proof of who I am. That I could be a terrorist come to infect and obliterate his society. I tell him I am just a man, a husband, a father. To look at, we are the same. With our dark eyes and light olive tinged skin, we could be cousins.
I tell him: “I am you”.