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Whether it is from exhaustion or fear, I don’t know, but the silence is unnerving. The only communication they give is with their eyes, if eye contact is made at all. I am shocked at how many children there are, and how quiet and well-behaved they are.
Most of these people are Syrians, people who had the same, or better, standard of living as we do in New Zealand, before war forced them to leave the country they love. Imagine what that would feel like, having to leave your best friends, your family, your pets, job, business, house, neighbours. It’s incomprehensible.
I look at the women, trying to make out the emotion on their faces, and can only conclude it is shame. These are doctors, lawyers, professional women who have been reduced to begging for the necessities of life and who cannot provide properly for their children.
I think of my own mother. What if it was she who had to walk for months with no way to wash, do her hair, clean her clothes, feed her children? Later I picture my father, when I pass an 85-year-old woman walking slowly in the heat along a rough dirt track into town, after being turned away from a full train. I can feel her ribs as I help her into the front seat of the car, taking her the short distance to the bus to wait for her family. She is the same age as my dad.
That afternoon I meet the Samir family from Daraa in southern Syria. They are being seen by Red Cross doctor Sandra Ignjatovska, who is on a double shift and has already seen about 500 people today. Tomorrow is her 27th birthday. She has to shout to make herself heard over the din, and uses the light of a cellphone to look down one child’s throat, before handing over basic medication for pain, fever and diarrhoea. The Samir family has been walking for 20 days – father Abukushlif Samir has brought along his mother Fendiye Seyid (47), and four beautiful but subdued children – his own two daughters Ayar and Beyen, just 1 and 2, and his brother’s children Rami and Amani, aged 4 and 5. Again I am reminded of my own family – but the little boy Rami seems so much older than my four-year-old nephew back home.
Mr Samir tells me their story as we sit in a stifling tent with a hundred other people, children wailing and fighting around us. In the three weeks since they left home they have experienced their own form of hell. At the Syria-Turkey border they spent five days huddled on the ground, ducking sniper fire. But worse was being stuck for 3 days in Turkey, with “no food, no water, no mercy”.
Eventually they crammed into a plastic boat in the dead of night with 70 other people and spent a terrifying 7 hours trying to reach Greece. The boat started leaking and taking on water. I ask what they said to the children and Mr Samir says he covered their eyes and gave them sleeping pills so they would be calm. Then he adds one horrifying detail. During the trip, the boat behind them, carrying 60 people, sank. They could only watch as everyone, including many children, drowned.
As the heat of the day becomes unbearable, Mr Samir gives his one-year-old daughter Ayar a quick wash on a piece of cardboard in the dirt outside the tent. She squeals and stamps in delight, enjoying the relief from the heat and no doubt happy to get rid of the dirty nappy. He wraps Ayar in a towel as his mother hangs the baby’s only dress to dry on the wire fence, then he hoists her in the air like a trophy for my camera.The 24-year-old talks about his wife, who he had to leave behind in Syria. She had a difficult childbirth and couldn’t travel. He hopes to send for her if, and when, he reaches his brother – the father of Rami and Amani – in Sweden.
Later, grabbing some shade in the back of the car, Red Cross doctor Sandra shows me some photos taken at the front line a few days earlier. “This one was an epi (epileptic fit),” she says, pointing at one photo of an unconscious man being carried by her team. “And this guy tried to kill himself because his wife passed out and he thought she was dead.” I ask how she copes with the terrible stories of those she helps, and she tells me she deliberately avoids asking, because the knowledge might keep her awake at night.
And she is right. I can’t stop thinking about the Samir family. The next day, and the day after and the day after that, I search the faces on the television news, hoping to see them, hoping they have made it to Hungary or beyond. Hoping they have not been forced to hide in the back of a truck, taking their chances at the hands of people smugglers, to whom they are just another dollar bill.