This is a book written by a now 6th grader, Lily, in 2018. The inspiration came from readings about refugees while she was in a 5th grader. It will be published on this blog in three parts. We think you will find it to be extraordinary.
“The men with guns have come!” I hear someone scream.
“Mama!” I say.
“Hush, child,” she says. “Come with me.”
She brings me out into the night. I hear the crackle of gunshots and the thump thump of helicopters overhead. I watch as as the people fall like rain to the ground around me. Mama yanks my arm and we break into a run. BANG! Mama yelps and falls to the ground.
“Don’t stay with me!” She gasps. “Run!”
“But Mama!” I say.
“GO!” She yells.
I don’t look back after she yells “Go!” I just run. My mind is telling me to stay but my legs move anyway. I scramble into a pricker bush not even feeling the prickles. I curl up into a tiny ball and hide my face in my hands.
I open my eyes and blink sleepily. Could I have fallen asleep? The sun is creeping up over the horizon. I look around. There is blood and bodies. I hide my face again. I do not want to see anything. But then I jerk my head up. Mama! I have to find Mama! I step out of the pricker bush and pick my way around my fallen people. Some are people I love, some, people I barely know, but we all lived in the same village. We are all the same people. Now, we are broken pieces that need to be put back together. But what can I do when half of my village is in Heaven, and half on this cruel, evil, Earth?
I keep looking, looking. Then I see it, half-hidden by a pricker bush, a blue and green dress I know so well. I freeze, not knowing whether to run away or towards it.
I fall to my knees, crawl to the pricker bush, and collapse on the dry, stoney earth beside her.
“Mama,” I say. “It’s time for us to go.”
She does not move. I tug on her dress, then tap on her shoulder.
“Mama,” I say again. I pat her gently on the back. When I withdraw my hand, I see it is covered in blood.
“No,” I whisper, “no, no, no…”
I scream, I yell, I hate these men with guns for what they did to my Mama. And to the rest of our village. I hear footsteps behind me but I don’t care who it is, I don’t care what they do.
The sun is now high in the sky. I’m still sitting next to Mama. Other people fled as quickly as they could when the men with guns came, and now they are coming back. I looked around me at the people with muddy, sad faces. One of them stops – a man whom I know from the market. His name is Ahmed. I never liked him – he is grumpy, and Mama says his prices are too high, and that his vegetables aren’t fresh. She says he wasn’t always like this, that he had once sold fresh vegetables, and would smile as he handed them over in exchange for her money, sometimes putting an extra this or that in her basket, and even giving me a small treat from the jar I knew he kept behind the counter. But, she said, all that had changed after his wife and daughter – she was about my age, I think – were killed by a bomb.
He reaches a hand out to help me up.
“I won’t leave Mama,” I say.
“Come, Fatimah, you must come,” he says. “It is too dangerous here! What would your mother want you to do? Starve and die or live a life?”
I glare at him and get up, pushing away his hand.
It is me and Ahmed and six other men. There is Dilek, whom I know by name, the village carpenter – he helped Papa fix the roof of our house when it leaked. He is middle-aged, and has a short grey beard, but he seems nice. The other five I recognize, but I don’t know their names. One is limping badly, and has blood on his leg. Another has a dirty bandage on his head and mutters to himself constantly. The other three seem to be friends, for they are always close together. I am the only child. We gather the few things that had been left untouched. Then we set off across the vast land, not knowing where we will go, or whether we will be lucky enough to find safety.
We walk and walk and walk and walk and walk. I am so tired and thirsty. I just want to lie down and never wake up. I just want to paeh. But then I think back to what Mama would want me to do. So I keep going.
We rest for only a few hours each day, to stop and drink at a rare stream with clean water, or a well that hasn’t been destroyed by the men with guns, or to pick over the crumbs from a previous meal of crumbs and scraps of food.
We have run out of food, and so all we can do is rummage through the piles of trash we find in the towns and villages we pass through, many of them deserted. Sometimes we steal. Once in a while, someone kind gives us a scrap of food. But my stomach still aches with hunger.
We have walked miles and miles. Finally, we make it to a large town, larger than anything I’ve ever seen – crowds of people fill the narrow streets, the air is thick with exhaust fumes and the noise of car horns and the stench of rotting garbage. I am pushed and shoved, and stepped on. Ahmed tries to take my hand, but, again, I push it away.
Even though it is a big town, we are still not somewhere safe. Ahmed and Dilek say that the only safe place is a refugee camp, and that refugee camps are usually at the borders of countries, but we are still far away from any borders. They say that what we need is a truck to take us to the border. If we have to walk, we might never get there. They seem worried.
We wait and we wait but there are no big trucks that might take us to safety. There is nothing but cars and people and dust and heat.
It is night, but we keep on moving. Ahmed says it is not safe to stop and sleep, and we are better to walk when it is cool, and dark, so we cannot be seen. There are bags under my eyes and I am longing to put my head down on Mama’s chest, and to fall asleep listening to her heartbeat. But I am not going to be able to rest with Mama because she is dead. I will only see her in my dreams and when I die and go to Heaven. But I think about what Mama would want me to do, to die or live a life. I choose to live, for Mama. I do not want to die yet. I will make use of my life even if I have to stay in a refugee camp for 10 or 15 years, or more.
Light cuts through the darkness; it is a truck. This could be our way to a refugee camp. The men jump up and down frantically, waving at the truck so that it might pull over, which it does. The truck driver steps out of his truck, leaving the engine running.
“Who are you people?” he asks. “What do you want? Where are you going? It is dangerous here. You could get killed.”
“We are refugees,” I hear myself say. The others look at me in surprise. “We are trying to find our way to a refugee camp, but we are so far away and we cannot walk anymore. Will you please bring us to a refugee camp? Please.”
The man looks at me with a smile.
“These are brave words from a child,” he says. “Can your friends not speak?”
“I’m not a child,” I say. “I’m 12 years old.”
“Yes,” he says, “you are not a child, not anymore… I don’t know if I can do this… You could be thieves… How can I know?... If they catch us, we will all be shot… I have a wife and a family…
He pauses, and looks at me.
“Where is your family, child?”
“They are all dead.”
“C’mon,” he says. “Let’s go.”
We walk over to the truck with him.
“You’ll have to stay in the back of the truck. And you must be very quiet.”
We bump off along the road. I do not know how long we are in the truck. It could be minutes, hours, days, or even years.
The truck finally stops and I hear footsteps. The back of the truck opens up and the truck driver tells us to get out. I jump down. I look around and see hundreds of tents and people. I see people standing in a long line with bowls and cups in their hands. I think they are waiting to get water and food. I see mothers bustling around with babies under their arms. I see people with dirty, sad faces. I see children with young, happy faces playing with one another, not knowing what has happened to their homes.
“Well, here you are,” says the truck driver. He starts to walk back to his truck, but I run up next to him and give him a big hug. I am just so thankful that we made it to some place that is safe. He gives me a pat on the back and smiles.
“You’ll be fine, I know you will. You’re a tough little girl,” he says. And then he walks away, without another word.
The men from my village and I put the few things we have with us in our small tent – one or two pots and pans and a few blankets. My blanket is between Ahmed’s and Dilek’s. We are all so tired that we collapse and sleep.
I am walking with Mama through the grass in the dim moonlight. I am only little, maybe three years old. I toddle over to a small pool of water. The moon is reflected in its still surface.
“Mama,” I say. “Water, moon.”
“Yes, my dear,” she says with a smile.
“I want Bahkit and Papa,” I say. I know in my dream that Bahkit and Papa loved to look at the Moon. Then I start crying.
“Sshhh, my dear,” she says. “Bahkit and Papa are looking down on us from Heaven and making sure we are safe and happy.”
One of my tears falls into the small pool, creating tiny ripples that make the Moon move up and down, as if it’s dancing.
Mama reaches down and takes my hand. We walk back to our house and lie down on Mama’s big, soft bed. My head rests on Mama’s chest and I fall asleep listening to her heartbeat.
I wake up with a start to the sound of people shouting and crying.
“The men with guns have come,” I scream. Dilek, Ahmed and the other men wake up. Ahmed leaps up and bounds to the entrance of our little tent. He chuckles.
“Silly Fatimah,” he says. “It is only shouting that it is time for breakfast… and babies crying.”
I do feel silly, even more so because it is Ahmed who laughs at me, and says I’m silly. I sit down on my thin blanket. Ahmed comes over to me. He puts a hand on my head. I move out from under it.
“It’s OK, Fatimah,” he says. “We are safe here.”
I have been standing in the food line now for three hours. My legs are aching and yet I am still far from the front of the line which snakes and curls so far that I can barely see where it ends. The only thing on my mind is food. I would stand in this line for 24 hours if I had to.
Dilek is standing behind me. He fidgets with the sleeves of his tattered yellow and blue robe. I just stand still, waiting patiently to get to the front of the line, so I can have food.
Seven hours later – the sun has moved past its highest point in the clear, blue sky – I reach the front of the line. The food is not what I was hoping for. All I see is a giant pot filled with a brown, watery looking liquid in which beans are floating, but I am too hungry to even care. I hold up the tin bowl I’ve been given, and a man slops some of the liquid and beans into it. I take it with a smile and a weak “thank you,” put the bowl to my mouth and gulp down a mouthful. Then I run back to our tent, careful not to spill what’s left in my bowl, and devour the rest. The beans are barely cooked and the liquid had sand in it, but it is delicious!
The men come into the tent behind me. They, too, are wolfing down their barely-cooked beans. I lie down after I finish mine. I am still tired from my journey to the camp. As I put my head down a small cloud of dust rises up around me. The dust and sand is everywhere – up my nose, in my mouth, in my eyes, in my ears. I lie on my blanket on the hard floor of packed earth for a long time, but I cannot sleep. Thoughts are rushing through my head like angry ants. I keep remembering names – Bahkit, Papa, Mama, Papa, Bahkit, Mama, Mama, Papa…
Ahmed comes over and sits down beside me. I roll away.
“You look sick,” he says, and places his hand on my forehead. It smells of dried fish or something like that. I wrinkle my nose. “I think you have a fever.”
My head throbs, the memories keep flooding through it. One in particular makes my stomach ache even more. I sit up, pushing Ahmed’s hand away so hard that it startles him. Then I throw up.
Ahmed pats my back and says “Come, my dear, I think you are not well. We must try to find you a doctor.” This time I don’t resist. His hand on my back comforts me.
I am in a small tent. It smells a bit like the liquid Mama would put on a bad cut, which I hated because it would sting so much. Ahmed is sitting beside me – a small comfort in a big world. A man with a friendly face and a name tag pinned to his shirt that says ‘Robert’ on it is holding my wrist and looking at his watch. Without looking up, he says, with an accent I don’t recognize, that I have a fever. I feel like I am next to a burning fire on a hot day. I am tired. I close my eyes and fall into a restless sleep.
“Bahkit! Papa!” I say. “Where are you?”
Mama and I rush outside. Dead people lie on the ground everywhere. There is blood. We search and search, frantic, but we still can’t find them. I look under some brush.
“Mama, come, come,” I cry.
Mama rushes to where I am. She gasps, throws her hands to her face, and falls to her knees. We start crying. We cry and cry.
“Bahkit, Papa,” I repeat, tears streaming down my face.
I wake up to find my face wet with tears. Ahmed is sitting on the floor beside my cot.
“Bad dream?” says Ahmed quietly.
“Yes,” I reply with a sniff and roll onto to my side.
Ahmed rubs my back in a comforting way, then sits back on the ground. I look around me more closely. There are other people in here with worse sicknesses than I have. Why am I crying over a fever, when others are really suffering, I ask myself. A wave of anger comes over me. I slap my face for being such a cry baby over a fever. I slap myself again and again. I just can’t stop. Ahmed jumps to his feet and grabs my hands.
“Fatimah, what are you doing? You must stop!” he cries.
“I can’t, I can’t,” I yell as I rip my hands free.
I can’t stop myself. I yell and scream and hit and punch. Ahmed tries to calm me, but I end up punching him too. I must have hurt him, because he cries out in pain. I don’t want to hurt Ahmed, he didn’t do anything, but I can’t stop. I just want to scream and yell and hit and punch anything and everything. Then suddenly I calm down.
“I am so sorry, Ahmed,” I say. “I really didn’t want to hurt you.” I start crying – long, choking sobs. “But I couldn’t stop myself.”
Instead of being mad, Ahmed opens up his arms. I climb off my cot and sit down on his lap. I don’t ask him, I just do it. He wraps his arms around me. “I understand, Fatimah. I understand.”
I am in Ahmed’s lap for what seems like hours. We just sit there, not saying anything. Dilek comes into the tent to check on us.
“Is she OK?” he says, as if I am not there.
“I’ll explain later,” says Ahmed. “I am tired.”
Dilek gives him a worried look and walks out of the tent.
A few minutes later, I hear men shouting, and the sound of people running past the tent. This time, however, I know it is not the men with guns, but the call that it is time for lunch or some meal.
“Hungry?” Ahmed asks.
We get up and walk out of the tent to find the line and take our place in it.
“Hey!” It’s Robert, the medic with the kind face. “Where do you think you’re going? You should be lying down and resting.”
“To get food,” I say. Ahmed looks at me with a questioning face. I nod that he should go to get food. He looks tired and hungry. He has been with me so much he deserves food. He needs to eat.
“Stay here,” says Robert. “We have food here.”
I eat a bowl of beans in a soup. This time, though, the beans are cooked and the soup is tasty. I fall into a deep sleep in a moment.
A boy walks into the tent. I am still drowsy, and I watch him through half-closed eyes. He is tall with short hair which looks a little as if he cut it himself – some parts are shorter than others. I wonder what my hair looks like right now. He is wearing a white, stained tunic. Both elbows are torn, and there are blood stains on one sleeve. He lies down on the the cot next to me, and sighs.
“Fever?” I ask him.
“Do you have a fever?” I say, more clearly this time.
“My name’s Fatimah. Yours?”
“Faheem,” he replies, blankly.
We are quiet for a while. I sit up in my cot, trying to think what I can say to make him feel better. Then he says:
“How did you get here?”
The whole story pours out of me like rushing water. Faheem listens quietly, without saying a word. When I’m done, we both sit staring at the floor between us. I’ve not told my story before, and I need some time to be able to sort all the pieces out, to make sense of it. I suppose Faheem does too.
“Wow,” says Faheem finally. “That is one long story.”
“Yeah,” I say. I feel a bit dazed. He’s right – it is one long story.
“I feel better,” says Faheem. I wonder if it’s my story that made him feel better, or if his fever just passed anyway?
“I do too,” I say. Mama always said that if something was upsetting me, telling someone would always make things better. Maybe she was right. I slide off my cot and go over to Robert, who is sitting at his desk scribbling something on a piece of paper.
“Can me and Faheem go out? We both feel better.”
He looks me up and down, and then does the same to Faheem.
“Sure,” he says, nodding. “It’s fine. Some air will do you good.”
“Come on, Faheem. Let’s go.”
We walk out of the tent. The sun is shining. People crowd the narrow spaces between the endless rows of tents, mostly just wandering aimlessly, or sitting in small groups talking. Small children play in the dust. A dog with its ribs showing picks over a pile of rotting food scraps. Babies are crying.
“How long have you been here?” I ask him.
“About a year.”
I wonder how long I will be here, whether I will ever have a real home again.
We walk around our part of the camp a few times, then I show Faheem to my tent. Ahmed is inside, talking quietly to Dilek. I think I hear my name, but I’m not certain. He turns as I push through the flaps of our tent, and looks at me in surprise.
“Hello, Fatimah,” he says. “What are you doing here? You should be in the medical tent resting.”
And then, when he sees that someone is with me:
“Who have you here?’
“Faheem,” I say.
Ahmed’s face clouds over momentarily. He looks at me, waiting for more.
“Faheem is my new friend. He ended up in the medical tent with a fever too. But now, like me, he’s all better.”
Ahmed smiles. I guess he is happy I made a friend. I start to feel embarrassed and my face is turning bright red, so I grab his hand and pull him out the door. I’ve not held anyone’s hand for ages, and so I don’t let go. I feel Faheem’s fingers tighten around mine. He has a nice hand.
“I’ve been so lonely,” says Faheem. “We are friends, right?”
“Yes,” I say. The sun is setting. There is an orange-red glow covering the camp. I never thought I would make a friend here, but I guess I was wrong.
The next day I am awakened by the sounds of what seems like a large crowd – the sounds of chaos. I jump up and stumble, still yawning, to the entrance of our tent. I hear chanting “We want water! We want water!” I cover my ears. It is getting louder and louder.
“What is going on?” I yell over the noise. I look around me for the first time and see there is no one in the tent except me. I start to panic. What is happening? Where is Ahmed, Dilek and the other men? Are they hurt? I feel the blood pounding in my head, and my breathing is so rapid I feel as if I’m going to choke. I am shaking. I pace from one side of the tent to the other, not knowing which is which. I feel as if I’m floating through darkness, through nothingness, a lonely, lost soul. Then everything goes blank.
“Fatimah.” I hear someone calling, faintly at first, then louder and louder. Then unbearably loud. I am being shaken. Then I awaken. Ahmed is kneeling beside me, his hands on my arm, shaking me.
“What’s going on?” I say.
“People are marching,” he replies.
“Because there is no water… they won’t give us any more… they say we have run out, but it is on the way… we wait and wait, but nothing comes... people are angry…”
I am confused.
“But where were you, Dilek, the others? I was worried, and, and…”
I don’t know how to finish my sentence.
“Be calm, Fatimah… take a deep breath. Tell me what happened.”
Ahmed keeps one hand on my arm, which is shaking slightly, and places the other on my forehead. He smiles. So I tell him as much as I can remember, hearing the noise of chaos, seeing the tent empty, my panic, and then nothing.
“But where were you, and Dilek, and the others?”
“Marching,” he says. “Without water, we die.” He pauses for a minute. A shadow passes across his face.
“Now, you must rest a little.”
There is no food this morning. We are told the men with guns stopped the trucks carrying our food and stole it. This leads to more protests.
With nothing to do, I set out to find Faheem. Where would I even start to look? But luckily, I don’t have to: I see him sitting by some spindly, dry bushes right in front of our tent.
“Faheem!” I yell. He looks up. A big smile appears on his face when he sees me.
“Hello, Fatimah,” he says, “I’ve been waiting for you.”
I sit down on a rock next to him. I open my mouth to say something, but nothing comes out. There is nothing for me to say. I reach out and take his hand.
A scream pierces the quiet morning. Faheem and I jump to our feet, looking to see where it came from. There, between a row of tents, we see a mob of people yelling and screaming at each other, pushing and kicking and punching. There is a man on the ground, and two others and a woman are trying to kick him. He covers his head with his arms in an effort to protect himself.
“What are they fighting for?” I ask Faheem.
“Dunno,” he says.
I run towards the mob.
“What are you doing, Fatimah?” yells Faheem. “Are you crazy?”
“Stopping this.” I yell back.
I reach the mob and scream at the top of my lungs:
But they take no notice of me. So I yell even louder. Still, they don’t stop. Then I scream as loud as I can – so loud and so high-pitched that it makes my ears buzz and I think my head might crack open. The people closest to me cover their ears. Then I scream again:
They stop and turn to look at me.
“What are you fighting over?” I yell, shaking, my fists clenched.
A man steps from the crowd. He, too, is shaking with anger. I take a step back.
“There was not enough food for everyone, so they give to some but not to others. This man – he turns and points to someone I can’t see, I think it’s the man on the ground – got more than even those who got something, but most of us got nothing.”
“My child has nothing. She is starving,” cries a woman.
“Who got the extra food?” I ask. The crowd parts so I can see the man on the ground. He sits rubbing his head. I gasp. It is Ahmed. His clothes are tattered and ripped, he has bruises on his arms and forehead, and a bloody cut on one cheek.
“Ahmed!” I cry. “What did you do to my Ahmed?”
I run to Ahmed, then look around at the crowd. They stand and stare at me, a crazy young girl, not sure what to do.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Help me bring Ahmed to a doctor.”
Then, to Ahmed:
“Can you walk, Ahmed?” I say gently. He shakes his head.
“Someone needs to help me!” I bellow. Two men step forward and help me lift Ahmed to his feet. He drapes an arm over the shoulders of each, and together we make our way to the medical tent. No one speaks. One or two people in the crowd follow a few steps behind us; the rest of them remain behind, watching. When we get to the tent, Robert isn’t there. We are lucky – there is an empty cot in one corner, and we lay Ahmed down on it. He falls asleep.