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We’ve left everything behind, but we mustn’t look back, my mother whispered to us.
She pulled us into an embrace and kissed our cheeks. Her lips were soft petals that brushed my skin, and the scent of her perfume was in my breath. My brother Efra lay his head down upon her shoulder as his little body trembled. I looked past them to the window of our small room, where the sun’s glare hid what lay outside – like a future that was not ours to see.
It had been four years since the war began, three years since the shelling started and our country had come to a standstill; two years since planes flew overhead and dropped bombs over the cities, leaving black scars upon our streets, our souls; six weeks since we had fled our home and crossed the border, leaving everything behind. Now, we waited for what came next: a chance to start life anew, to live in hope and not in fear, to dream once more.
My father was a soldier in the Army and after the war began, he was sent away to the front to join the fighting. Before he left, he kissed us goodbye and promised that he would return to us. We prayed to Allah to protect him and keep him safe. Days passed before we heard news of him. After we went to bed, my mother turned on the television, and I listened to it through the walls, to catch any news of the war. Sometimes, when I woke up at night, the TV was still on: my mother had fallen asleep on the sofa and I tiptoed across the living room and turned the television off. My father called us from the front: he spoke to us in his light-hearted way, as if he was not at war but somewhere else. Once while on the telephone with him I heard gunfire in the background and I was afraid, as if the war had suddenly become close. We asked him when he would come home. Soon, he promised. Then one evening he came home, on leave from the front, and he pressed his bear body against our soft skins and held us tight.
When he had slept and rested, he was like our father of old again, though his hearing was less sure and he spoke louder than he did before. One evening, Efra sat down next to him and said: tell us a story, a story about the war. But he did not tell us about the real war; instead, his stories were fantastical tales, full of adventure where the enemy – the rebels – were like mythical creatures. He told us how he would outwit and defeat them before he killed them off. Efra listened to him with his hand on his chin, his little body shivering with excitement till he grew tired and fell asleep on his lap. My father picked him up and carried him to bed. He returned and took me to bed, kissed me goodnight. I closed my eyes and listened to his heavy footsteps fade beyond the door and I knew he would be going away again.
His leave ended and he returned to the front. The war intensified and spread to the north of the country. The rebels captured the first cities and then reached the outskirts of our city. On television, they spoke only of great victories, how the rebels would soon be defeated and the war would end. I lost track of the days, the months as they passed, and then the years. My father’s calls from the front grew less frequent, and when he did telephone, his voice was tired, as if it carried a great weight. Then his calls stopped and we did not hear from him again. Instead we heard the sounds of mortars and shells being fired from the east towards us. It was no longer safe to walk the streets in the day, and we stopped going to school and spent our days inside. They were days of longing: to be outside, to be free. Rockets fell on our street and broke the glass on our windows. I sat up by the open window and waited – waited for my father’s footsteps outside, for his voice to call out to us, to tell us he had returned. But he did not come home. We grew afraid. At night, I could not sleep: even my dreams were filled with the sound of rockets crashing on our street.
The rebels made inroads into our city and it was divided into two. Planes flew over us and bombed the rebel-held parts of the city. We watched from the roof as the smoke rose like an angry hiss from the ground and the bombs left craters on the streets. The front moved closer to our street. One day, the bombs fell over us. We took shelter in the basement of a hospital. The walls shook around us as we huddled in the dark. We were shaking too. When we went outside again, the air was thick with dust, with death. We couldn’t breathe. We saw faces smeared in blood, in dust, like ghosts. We retreated into silence. Into the shells of our homes. The city turned into a living hell, bombed to ruin. We lived in darkness, in the shadow of death. One night, as I sat up in bed, I heard my mother crying through the walls. I rose from my bed and slipped into her room, slid into her bed. We slept in each other’s arms, like sisters, her face wet against mine. I knew then that my father would not return to us. In the morning when I awakened, my mother sat down next to me and said that it was time for us to leave, to escape the country. We were not safe here anymore.
In the next two weeks, my mother collected her savings and her jewellery. We said goodbye to neighbours, to friends. We locked our home and left a message for our father at the door. In the taxi, I looked through the window and fought back tears till everything was a blur. Goodbye, Home. Goodbye Syria.
The taxi drove us north to the border. At the border, we waited days for our chance. We dressed in black to be like shadows, to be invisible in the night. We crossed the border by crawling through a trench dug under the border fence. That was our first crossing. As we rose and walked on the other side, we felt weightless.
We passed through the border camps and moved up along the coast till we stopped at Bodrum. We stayed in a hotel in a room with pink walls and a window that looked out onto the street. I slept in a bed with Efra and my mother slept in the other bed across the room. In the day, we went for walks and even visited the beaches, but the others looked at us like we were strangers from far away. We felt strange too. We were refugees. At night, Efra had dreams about the war and his body shook and trembled till I pulled him close and rocked him back to sleep.
My mother’s sister had already made it to Europe the year before. She sent three thousand euros to pay for the next part of our journey. My mother made arrangements with those who ferried people across the sea to the islands of Greece. I checked the weather reports on my phone and sent messages to friends on WhatsApp. We bought lifejackets in the market and bottles of water and snack bars. We bided our time. Finally, we got the word: we would cross on a moonless night at the end of August, the end of the summer.
On that day, we slept all afternoon so that we would be rested for the crossing. We knelt on the floor and said our evening prayers. Afterwards, we ate snack bars for dinner and watched some television. Then it was time to go. A taxi came to pick us up and we drove in the dark. I did not look back the way I had when we left our home. Efra started to cry and I held his hand.
The taxi dropped us off at the chosen point. We waited by a grove of trees. It was already past midnight. Soon others joined us, families with children, refugees like us. A cool breeze blew across the bay. I looked up at the night sky: it was moonless, as if the night had veiled her face. Efra lay down at my feet and curled up to sleep. Soon, my legs were tired, and I lay down next to him. Later, my mother shook us awake. It’s time, she said. We rose to our feet and put on our life jackets. I helped Mama put on hers. We waited for the signal. The last of the Turkish patrol vessels had come and gone for the night. There would be no more patrols tonight.
Someone clapped his hands by the water. They were calling out to us. We walked towards the beach in silence, over pebbles and sand. A rubber raft lay at the edge of the water. Two men stood on either side of the raft. They lifted the women and children first. A man took my hand and lifted me over the side of the raft. The men got on afterwards. There were twenty people in all on the raft. The men sat along the edges, while the women and children sat in the middle. The two men on the beach knelt on the sand to pray; afterwards, they pushed the raft into the water and jumped on. One of them tugged on the line for the outboard motor, and it coughed to life. Two men with paddles on each side of the raft pushed us on. Soon, the raft moved into open water. We were on our way, across the Aegean Sea, towards the island of Kos, in Greece.
The sea was inky black, like the night. Across the bay, the lights of Europe were the stars in our eyes.
The coast was an ink stain that faded behind us. We rode in silence, just the coughing of the motor and the slosh of water against the raft. The wind picked up and turned fierce, like a slap against our faces. My mother spread her blanket like wings and wrapped us in its folds. The waves rocked the raft and sent a spray of water over the side. The rocking motion made Efra sick and he threw up over my shoes. I ran my fingers through his hair and soothed him, told him it was alright, my shoes would be clean again. He poked his head out of the blanket and breathed the salty air and looked up at the stars. We were Allah’s forgotten children.
We were halfway across the bay and moving towards the lights. Three quarters of the way across, the men turned the motor off, fearing that the Greek coast guard might be close. The two men with the paddles rowed us on. We drifted onwards. When the coast was clear, the men tugged on the line for the motor again, but it would not come back to life. They cursed aloud. The sea turned angrier, as if the mythical creatures lying beneath had stirred. A wave broke over the side and poured water into the centre of the raft. Our feet were soaked. The men cursed aloud again. We cupped our hands and bailed the water out. The waves swelled and lashed us like tentacles, splashed more water over the side. The raft grew heavier and the men with the paddles rested their arms. When the next wave broke over us, the raft filled with water again. We were sinking.
The water rose to my knees and then to my hips. The raft sank beneath us. When the next wave broke, we were floating in open water. There was saltwater in my mouth, in my lungs. I spat the water out. The men threw plastic tubes from the raft into the water. Efra and Mama gripped a tube: I was the only one who knew to swim and they were afraid. But the next wave was strong and tore us apart and they floated away and disappeared into the inky blackness.
Efra, Mama, I cried out. The sea swallowed my cry.
My body was in shock, shivering in the water, up, down, up, down in the waves. A tangle of arms and legs thrashed and kicked around me. The waves pushed them further away, till they were twenty, then thirty feet from me, their heads sticking out of the water, adrift like castaways. I could not see Efra or Mama anywhere. I took a gulp of air and dove beneath the water. It was murky, dark. Up for air again. I rubbed the saltwater out of my eyes, dove under again. The sea was an abyss.
The lights were a blur about a mile away, so close that I could almost grasp them. I began to swim towards the lights. My arms stroked the water, my feet kicked behind me, my body streamlined, slicing through the water. When my arms got tired, I turned on my back and floated, riding the waves. Then I switched to the breast stroke, my knees kicking wide behind me. Nothing else on my mind but reaching land. My limbs numb with ache. My throat raw with salt. The lights closer, brighter. I heard the surf break and sensed land beneath me. I crawled the last twenty feet on my hands and knees till I was ashore. Europe, at last.
My body was overcome with exhaustion and I fell into a black sleep.
In my sleep, I dreamed that I saw my father again. I told him the story of our crossing, a story like the fantastical tales that he had told us. When I had finished, he wrapped his arms around me and held me close. His heat warmed me and gave me life again.
When I woke up, there was a knife edge of blue in the sky. I raised my head and looked at all the things we had left behind. Life jackets floated in the water like buoys. Further on, I saw the lights of a coast guard vessel searching the water. I thought of Efra and Mama and prayed that the coast guard had found them and picked them up, that they were warm and safe.
I lay my head back in the sand, the hush of the sea a lullaby.
I fell asleep again.
The tide washed over my feet as I slept, like the past holding on and pulling me back, unwilling to let go.