Do you believe in God? I sometimes do and sometimes don’t, which is not an attitude that is likely to please anybody’s church and does not sound like Faith. But every now and then I am blessed with an experience that leaves me, temporarily at least, in no doubt that some power up there has a plan for me.
Yesterday was such a day. It didn’t rain yesterday. Unlike the day before, when it poured down for most of the day and I spent many hours wondering how the 202 refugees in the local camp at the village sports hall would be spending their day. Would they be lounging about on their thin mattresses, waiting for the rain to stop so they could take a peek outside? Would they be feverishly tipping messages on their phones, moving from corner to corner in an attempt to get a better reception? Or would they be queueing up at the few toilets and showers and trying to quieten crying babies and busy young children?
The refugees arrived in buses three days ago. They came much later than expected, which meant that registration and elementary medical checks went on late into the night. All day the Red Cross and local volunteers had been laying out matresses and bedding in blocks of four on the floor ; sixty beer tent tables with benches had been set up at one end of the hall and a huge number of banana boxes filled with used clothing had been carefully sorted and labelled by locals from a nearby village. The food was dished out by volunteers organised by our Catholic parish.
I would normally have volunteered myself to help with the food. Or indeed for any other way I could help. But we were returning from a trip to France that day and I had missed the briefing. So having persuaded myself that there would be enough kerfuffle at the camp on the first day, I stayed at home and first ventured into the camp yesterday with the intention of asking whether board games were needed.
Our village sports hall is annexed to the local school. When I arrived, the playground was dotted by small groups of black-skinned and brown-skinned and pale-skinned ladies and gents, boys and girls, teenagers and babies, many of them dressed as if the clothes they were wearing belonged to somebody else. Some of them were indeed busy with mobile phones, others sat on low walls looking worn, a few were smoking. Hardly anybody was talking, I remembered later.
It never occurred to me that it might be difficult to access the sports hall. The entrances were guarded by security people and those who were there on a voluntary basis wore stick-on name tags, which allowed them to pass. Fortunately I bumped into the deputy chairman of our council, who told me the name of the chief organiser of the Red Cross, in charge of the logistics. However, before I managed to talk my way past the second door, a volunteer couple who were just leaving the building asked if I could speak French. They asked if I could take care of a rather shy Syrian lady wheeling a pushchair, who spoke no English and no German and was clearly feeling very down.
I was then escorted a few yards away into the playground and introduced to a pleasant-looking fair-skinned woman with typically blonde streaked hair. Clad in dark red jogging trousers and a thin grey cardigan with a long home-knitted scarf, Miriam had tried to coax her hair into a plait, which kept coming undone since she had no scrunchy. (Miriam is not her real name, but I have decided not to reveal her true name). After a little polite chat, I suggested we take a little walk into the village to show her around and Miriam, who seemed to be relieved to be able to express herself at last in this foreign country, became extremely talkative and with no prompts needed, slowly began to tell her Story piece by piece.
From the very beginning I liked Miriam. It was the straight-forward look that came from her light blue-green eyes and her natural restraint which I found so pleasant. In the pushchair was 6 year-old Suleyman, a chubby dark-skinned boy with Downs syndrome. Mano, as the family called him, barely talks, but he was fascinated by my lipstick and continued to move his finger round his lips, gabbling away, to show his approval. Gesticulating wildly, he often grunted noises of interest as we walked. When he grabbed my finger or my hand, which he did whenever I gave him the chance, his grip was strong and he was reluctant to let go!
Suleyman is the youngest of Miriam’s children. Since Miriam’s husband, a doctor, worked for the regime in Syria, he would never have been allowed to leave the country and would have put his own life as well as that of his family in danger had he tried to escape. So Miriam had made this journey as a single parent, sacrificing her marriage for the sake of the safety of her children, in particular for Suleyman. Her 16 year-old son and her 15 year-old daughter were busy making friends with other teenagers at the camp. The teenagers had not attended school for over a year, Miriam told me. It was too dangerous, with bombs dropping continuously.
The camp made a welcome change from the gruelling two week treck across Europe that had sapped a lot of their physical strength. Most of their dangerous trip had involved hours and hours of walking, crossing the border from Syria into Turkey and after crossing the Greek border, wandering from Balkan state to Balkan state. The children and Miriam and fortunately some of the stronger males they had met en route had carried Suleyman, a rather heavy boy, between them. As a result, Miriam was suffering not only from fatigue and sore feet, but also from severe backache. They were often left behind by the group they happened to be travelling with, Miriam told me and described how, more than once, she sat down exhausted at the wayside and urged her teenage chldren to carry on without her. One night she and her children were alone on a freezing cold mountainside.
But the physical fatigue was only one part of the terrible ordeal. There was also the indignation at having to bribe their way at the borders, the threats of physical violence to the children if she was not prepared to do so, the “confiscation” of her smartphone, the danger of capsizing in the tiny boat that ferried them to Greece and the sudden, 24-hour long disappearance of Suleyman, who was whipped away (to safety) by an Iraqi when they were chased by soldiers on the way to Turkey.
This morning I discovered that the reason why Miriam had not washed her cardigan with her other laundry at camp was because she had nothing to change into. While the other women were selecting a change of clothes from the Red Cross, she had been tending Suleyman, who had incurred a concussion at some point. After acquiring a pair of pyjamas for herself and sufficient clothing for the six-year old, she had given up and moved back to her mattress, despondent and still exhausted. The clothes had since been taken back to headquarters. I hope I managed to persuade the official team to give her a second chance to pick something she can wear.
I get the feeling that what Miriam needs more than anything else at this stage is a friend and I have tried to be that friend for a few days. When we meet at camp, she kisses me on both cheeks and calls me habib, my dear. Was it chance that brought us together? I believe we were meant to meet.
The refugees in Sulzberg will be moved on to another village on Sunday at the latest. They don’t know where and neither do we. But then Miriam will need to find another short-term friend. Miriam and the thousands of other refugees who all need as much compassion as we in Europe can give.