Five years. That is the age of my son Emmanuel. Five years ago he was born, weaned, he cried, laughed, walked, and played. He went to the nursery and now – with emotion – we enrolled him in primary school.
Five years is also the age of Ahmed. He too was born, then played, cried, and laughed… like all children. For the rest, what separates Emmanuel from Ahmed is an abyss of a few square kilometers, and two words: refugee camp. Ahmed is Syrian. He spent most of his life in a refugee camp. Without a house to protect him. Without the security that is the right of every child.
Five years, the age of the war.
During the night, sounds are amplified in the camp. Only a thin layer of tissue separates from the nearby tent. Here, in Tel Abbas, north of Lebanon, on the border with Syria, Operation Columbus led by the Community Peace Corps Pope John Xxiii, has been sharing life with Syrian refugees for two years now. At present, thanks to a humanitarian channel that has been opened, 50 persons of this camp will reach Italy. Almost all of them have fled from Homs, from the neighborhood of Ban El Hamra, one of the first ones to have been bombed in 2011. Abu Rami shows a video of Homs on his phone: rubble. I guess that one is my home I cannot imagine it. So many things are unimaginable.
With a humanitarian corridor operated and funded by the Community of Sant’Egidio and the Federation of Evangelical Churches, with the cooperation of Operation Dove, the 93 refugees will arrive to Italy soon. 1000 humanitarian visas were issued in total.
“The last Italian folly, let’s go fetch them on planes”, commented the headline of a famous Italian newspaper on the humanitarian corridor.
I was lying in the tent, it was the last night we spent there, when I heard coming from a distance the sad sound of an Agarwood, a kind of Arab guitar-lute. It was coming from the Akrams’ tent. The whole field, in procession, went to greet those who were leaving. In the smoky tent, a sweet smell of tea mingled with tears, smiles, hope for those who were leaving and the loneliness of those who remained. Diaspora. Diaspora is the migration of an entire people forced to flee from their homeland and scattered around the world (Wikipedia).
Let us imagine that in a moment our house becomes a pile of rubble. That our elderly parents are in a refugee camp 30 km away from ours, but we do not see them for three years because we cannot leave the camp where we are. Your sister is in Canada, one of your brothers is in Sweden, and another one died at sea. And you have the opportunity to go to Italy, and you go there for your children, because you think they might have a future there. In a culture, climate, and so many other things you do not know and this cringing longing for your homeland that never abandons you. And in Italy you might hear something like ‘go home’. (Which home?) This is unimaginable too. Many, too many things are unimaginable here.
So many things one cannot tell. The taste of the matè I have to drink here (I do not like it at all) because I do not want to hurt the hospitality and the sweet faces of these people. Eyes lost in memories of our home that no longer exists. The noise of the bombs at night, bombs that are destroying your land within five kilometers of you who are so close but infinitely distant. How can you tell about entire families and children forced to live for 28 days inside water pipes, hiding from the bombings? The conflict in Syria is the most terrible one of the last 50 years. It has ‘produced’ 12 million refugees (7 million internally displaced people and 5 million overseas). More than half of them are children. But not even numbers suffice to tell their stories.
At dawn, there is already movement in the camp. Voices, people rushing back and forth, suitcases, we are preparing. After four years of life in captivity, you cannot wait to be set free, you have no more patience. Italian press is everywhere in the camp… they are tired – they feel a bit like a freak show – and I smile thinking that they do not know what awaits them in Italy…
We see the nightlights from the windows of the bus that is driving us to Beirut. We see images of this strange land, sometimes hostile as we drive by. Half-destroyed houses because of neglect and poverty, walls that look like gruyere cheese – the marks left by war. But also multicolored lights, like in Vegas, in sharp contrast with everything else.
Smell of spices and kebabs in the air. The unmistakable smell of the Middle East, perhaps the only thing all of us share here, winners and losers, Jews, Christians, and Muslims… dead and alive. No, on second thought, there is also the sea. The same sea for everyone. Also for us. The Mediterrranean Sea.
Under our eyes, the Tel Abbas camp was emptied amidst desperate cries. The sadness of those who were leaving mingled with the sadness of those who stayed. Of course, they were different: the refugee camp kills hope above all things. For those fortunate enough to go away there is a new life ahead. It will be tough, but they can see a future.
Children on the bus – more than half of the refugees are under 10 – were laughing, joking, and dancing. “Ana mabsoot” Karima told me. I was happy. The driver put a song. It was sad music, I understood almost nothing of its lyrics. Only Syria, Syria.
Next to me there was Abu Akram’s father who wiped his tears away with the back of his hand. At his side there was his wife Umm Akram’s mother. She was sobbing. I looked behind and no one was talking there. Adults were crying softly. Kids kept playing in the back of the bus.
Abu Akram is the founder of the family. With Umm Akram they had 10 children, 5 boys and 5 girls. Some of them were there with them. Others were elsewhere. I felt like an intrusive witness of the suffering of this old man with white hair and beard who had always greeted us with smiles full of affection in his tent. I thought he should have live in peace in his home in Syria, watching his grandchildren grow up, instead of sleeping on the damp ground of a refugee camp for four years, then end up in a culture, climate and language so different from his own. I felt uneasy… it was true – it was all true – it was the right thing to do. They were going to have the possibility to find shelter in Italy and have a dignified life… but in my heart I knew, and they knew it too: they were never going to see Syria again. My tears were falling down too, clouding everything, and I feel their dignified superiority… “The kind of superiority our cursed history gives its victims.”
Abu Akram’s granddaughter is less than one month old, and one day when – if everything goes well – she will be Italian and will speak Italian, maybe someone will tell her about that night. Maybe someone will tell her about the beautiful sunsets in Homs and where her roots are. But memory is weak and all too often our survival instinct asks us to forget. I feel anguish in thinking that she is too little, she will not remember her grandfather’s tears nor the lacerating wound of the diaspora of Syrian people.
History and identity that are lost, destroyed by a war that none of them desired. Fathers, brothers, and children scattered around the world – in Syria, Europe, and in America – many of whom will never meet again. How can one accept such injustice?
How can we accept such injustice without losing our humanity?
Then I think I am lucky. Because I am indignant and my humanity shudders. And because these people are going towards a life without war, that is, their dream. I have seen gratitude in their eyes so many time during these days. Shukran (Thank you) Abu Tony, shukran Gennaro, Marwa, Marco Sara and every member of the Operation Dove.
Thank you, Operation Dove, also from me, for giving me the opportunity to touch these lives and not remain suspended in the limbo of those who pretend not to see. Thank you for substance instead of appearance. Because you learn freedom from those who do not have it.
Taken from Always