Not Enough Space in this World
As soon as I step into the kitchen, I can see that something tragic has happened. Something that will change us forever. Mother sits, hunched, at the table; her face is frozen in a grotesque contortion, her lips pressed together so that they are barely visible, her eyes dull with anguish, her nose and cheeks scrunched up as though she is in agony. My little brother, Jamal, is writhing in his pram, waving his tiny fists and crying out for attention. But Mother does not hear him—it is as though her body is empty, her mind having slipped loose from the restraints of her skull. Rima, a young woman who has lived with us since her house was bombed, sits next to Mother, her hands hugging a steam-less mug of black tea. She is silent, and does not appear to notice that her hijab has slipped back, so that her hair can be seen.
Then Mother sees me, and it is as though I am a stranger to her. She stares at me, not saying a word. I stare back. Her face crumples, so that her lips come back, but they still twist themselves into inhuman forms.
For a moment, I struggle to comprehend what her bereft eyes are shouting. I look frantically around the kitchen, my breath catching as my searching gaze does not discover Father. I stumble out of the kitchen, my head smashing into the lintel as I pass into the hallway.
How could I have ever thought such a thing? Of course Father would always make sure he came back to us, whatever.
I shudder out a breath of relief, feeling quite light-headed as I see Father’s coat hung upon the wall, in its usual place next to the mirror.
Obviously he would never leave us. How could I have ever doubted him?
I press my hand to the sleeve of his coat, as though to reassure myself that it is really there, and not just a figment of my imagination.
But it is wet. Sticky.
Drawing my hand away from it, I slowly rotate my hand, horror invading my heart as I smell the sickly, putrid smell that is so bitterly familiar. My palm has a red plasma smeared across it.
My father was shot by the Terrors, whilst out on patrol, just north of Aleppo. He was with a group of the Resistance when a group of terrorists gunned them down. In the name of Allah. When he is our One too.
“Karam, we are leaving at first light. Rima’s brother and a small number of the Resistance are going to escort us across the mountains, until we reach Hama.” Mother finally speaks, her face still torn but no longer frightening me. She gets up from the table and takes Jamal in her arms to soothe his frustration, so oblivious that our family has just ripped apart at the fragile seams.
“But where are we going? There is nowhere for us,” I ask Mother, the bewilderment showing in my voice.
“We’re going to England. Their government will help us, as refugees.” I don’t reply, as Mother continues.
“Father has left some money for us to scrape by. We haven’t gone before now, because there was not enough for all of us. But now…” Her determined voice has weakened into quiet sobs. She leans her cheek against Jamal’s and rocks back and forth on her heels. I go to her, wrapping my arms around the two most important people in the world to me. Already, at just fifteen I am taller than my mother, and now that Father is gone I must take care of my family.
Gone? Why am I thinking ‘gone’? The Islamic State murdered him… He is DEAD!
I feel the pent up fury within me lifting its ugly head, and taking my arms from around Mother and Jamal, I walk out of the house.
I feel like hitting someone. Punching something so that it becomes feeble and damaged. The way the Terrors have damaged my family, my home.
Stamping out onto the street, I endeavour to look away from the scenes of devastation around me. I crane my neck and look down alleys as I pass, desperately searching for something that has been untouched by the conflict. I turn away from piles of rubble that are all that is left of what were once strong, safe houses. I cringe away from an elderly woman who is knelt in the middle of the road, moaning and wailing until her skeletal frame sways with exhaustion. I try not to see the park where we used to have picnics, the sandstone paving stones now a myriad of cracked mosaics, the bench a mangled piece of weaponry.
Everywhere I look, there is a scene that punches another hole through my heart, until all that is left are tatters and shreds of bloody tissue.
Bending my knees, I drop to the floor and bash my fist against the concrete. I pummel the ground until my knuckles run with blood and great cauliflower bruises seep across the back of my hand. When I stop, my hands are shaking, and useless.
The rage within me is still there—will always be there—but it is dropping off to sleep.
The following sunrise, we gather the few precious items that we can carry, and walk out of the front door. Rima will stay in our house, as she must support the Resistance, and does not want to leave her home. She will fight with every breath in her body against the Terrors, who have destroyed our land and tarnished our religion.
I do not take many things with me, as I know that I will carry Jamal for most of the way. There is a small steel dagger that Father entrusted me with when the conflict started in Ad Dana, our town, almost two years ago. Then I carry a narrow bracelet, which I received when I first went through my rite of passage, and was bound to Islam.
The only other belongings in my rucksack are some clothes, and bundle of rags that will serve as Jamal’s nappies. There is also half a loaf of stale bread, a bag of oatmeal, and a second-hand book on edible plants growing throughout Syria. Tucked inside this is a wad of cash, that Mother has given me to safeguard.
We meet Hassan, Rima’s brother-in-law, at the top of the rise, just East to Ad Dana. With him, we see only two other men we are unacquainted with, and the Ashman family: a middle-aged couple with their three children.
“We are waiting for just three more. I am glad you have decided to leave, Amena,” Hassan says to my mother, carefully examining her expression.
“I have Jamal to act for. Karam too.” Mother looks away from Hassan, her expression guarded, and her demeanour stiff. Hassan is a Hindu, and even now, after all that has happened and all the suffering we have shared, Mother cannot treat him as one of our own.
We wait for an indeterminate length of time, the group growing more restless with each minute we linger. Eventually, Hassan claps his hand together, his rucksack swinging heavily from one shoulder.
“We will leave without them. We cannot afford to lose the sunlight hours, if we are to reach Zitan by nightfall.” We gather our belongings from the ground, and gather around Hassan.
“We must let the infants walk themselves, until they are too weary to continue, and then we shall carry them. It is a long way to go, as we are having to travel slightly east in order to avoid the conflict at Aleppo and Idlib.”
With that, we abandon our homeland, our hearts laden with grief. However, we have only walked about a thousand metres, when we hear shouting behind us.
Instantly, everybody dives for the ground, falling hard, but lying still and silent so that we blend in to the dusty floor. My heart thuds, afraid that we are under attack already. Jamal lies beneath Mother whimpering, as she moulds her body into a cage around him.
“Everybody stay down!” Hassan hisses at us, even though there is no need.
But there is nothing. No explosions, no gunshots, no harsh fingers snatching at us. Hassan slowly raises himself up, and turns to look behind us, for the source of the disturbance. I look also, and see a slender figure athletically sprinting across the rocky terrain, with another person hobbling behind.
“It’s OK. Just the people who did not meet us, as they arranged,” Hassan says, the relief evident in his deep voice. We all get up and brush the dust from our clothes, the oxygen returning to our lungs, and our hearts beating once again. Now is not the hour when they will stop forever.
“I’m so sorry. We had not meant to alarm you,” a razor thin girl says loudly as she approaches us. She is about my own age, or perhaps a couple of years older. Though since the war, everyone appears to look older, with faces careworn and tread heavy, as though there is a physical burden sitting upon our shoulders.
“Sara Nasser?” Hassan questions, his tense expression relaxing slightly. She nods and then turns to look at the figure who is still about half a kilometre from us.
“Mother is coming, as you can see. Father passed away this morning.” Sara looks directly at Hassan who nods, as though an unspoken question and answer has passed between them.
“Please accept my sympathies…” ‘Sympathies’? Who wants sympathy? We want our father back, not for other people to feel sorry for us.
I look at Sara, hoping she will look at me, but she does not.
We reach Zitan just before nightfall. The town was evacuated several months ago, its inhabitants fleeing from the Terrors’ insatiable thirst for violence. Death. Destruction. All the poisonous words that were cruelly put into our vocabulary.
That first night, we sleep beneath the stars, in the shell of what must have once been a grand house. One of the men shot a couple of hyraxes during the day, but as we sit around the campfire, and look at the speared rodent, we realise that it is hopeless. The smell of decay permeates our hair, nostrils, and the women’s hijabs. Sara’s bony face shows an inner turmoil, torn between not wanting to injure the hunter’s pride, but also repulsed by the vile smell and strips of bloody flesh. Eventually she walks away from the ring of stinking smoke and flying ash.
We go to sleep hungry that night, needing to preserve our meagre rations for the days ahead of us. The stars wink at me from the charcoal sky. Once again, I wonder if there is anything up there. If Allah even exists. If the world has a soul.
After all the atrocities I have witnessed, I can feel my faith deserting me. Our religion is a mere fabrication of beliefs and events. Some people need that to carry on. I don’t.
We reach Lebanon four days later, our ankles swollen from trekking through the mountains, our hands calloused from the merciless heat and wind. The Ashman family turned back not long after we reached Zitan, after one of their children became feverish. We all feel the threat of contagion hanging over us.
Hassan left us at Hama, two days ago. He had to return to his family, and purpose in life. Fighting the Terrors.
On the coast of Lebanon, in a little fishing village, a boatman offers to transport us across the Mediterranean, to Europe. His vessel is relatively big, and I am grateful that it appears to be sturdy, and level in the water.
“We leave tomorrow morning. Be here at sunrise.” That is all the man says to us, not even asking for payment.
“Excuse me Sir—how much is each passenger’s fare?” The hunter says politely, his Arabic very well-spoken, as though it is not his first language. He has not spoken before now.
“Twenty-two pounds a person. The little boy may go for fourteen pounds,” he mutters, pointing at Jamal.
“What? But that’s an extortionate sum!” The hunter splutters, his gesticulating hands expressing waving around wildly.
“Your choice.” The boatman walks away, his expensive boots thudding against the concrete.
The following morning, we all wait at the agreed meeting point long before the sun peeps above the horizon. For once, we are all looking fresh, having swum on the beach the previous night. An hour after we get there, an intimidating group of about twenty people walk up to us.
“Why are you here?” an older woman says rudely, flicking her hijab towards our group.
“We are waiting for a boat to take us to Europe,” I reply. At that moment, we see the boatman walking towards us.
“Good. I see we are all here. Let’s get going then.” The boatman looks around at all the faces watching him disbelievingly. In a dumb stupor, we all follow him down to his motor boat. It no longer looks quite so sturdy.
“We can’t all fit in that!” several people say at once, our stress rapidly turning to panic.
“Right then. You can stay here then. Everyone else, life jackets on please,” he speaks cheerily, as though this is an everyday occurrence. Which it probably is.
Dumbly, we all pull the life jackets over our heads, and step into the boat, until the water splashes at our knees.
Why are we doing this, I think? There is nowhere else for us to go…
About ten hours later, we can see our destination on the horizon. The crossing has been smooth, the waters calm, and the air still. We are safe. Italy is within our grasp.
Then it all happens at once. People stand up to see the coastline, or crane their necks to my side of the boat. It tips.
Bodies smash against the water, as it hangs on its side above us. Then it comes crashing towards us.
Throwing my head under the water, I arch my back so that the deck of my boat hits against it. My lungs have swollen to twice their usual size, and I am trapped beneath the boat. My fingers scrabble uselessly at the wooden deck, my head thrashing against it. I try to swim down, so that I can get out from beneath it, but my life jacket will not let me. It harshly beats and bruises my body against the deck.
Then a hand closes around the back of my throat and I am dragged sideways. I am pushed above the surface of the water, my lungs exploding as a cacophony of water spurts from my mouth. Another different hand pulls at me from above, flinging me onto the dry decking of another boat.
I am alive.
It was an Italian rescue team that plucked me from the water. They did not pluck Jamal or Mother from it. Nobody did.
As soon as we reached the coast, a police lorry pulled up and bundled us into the back.
I was free.
But then we were driven to a camp. A camp with barbed wire and tall mesh fences. A prison.
“What’s going on? Why are we in here?” Our questions are answered by another Syrian who is already within the camp.
“We are being sent home. The government has said there is no space for us here. We are going to be shipped back to Lebanon at the end of the week.”
I hear only two words: no space.
There is no space in this world for me.