A volunteer I worked with on Lesvos has just sent me a file of photos and statements from refugees and volunteers that she compiled into a multi-media documentary that showed at a gallery in Canada all summer.
Reading it left me with tears in my eyes.
I was one of the participants, and as I read my own responses to her questions, I reflected on how harsh I sounded compared to the others, how jaded.
It shouldn't come as a surprise to me. I am pretty jaded. I never saw the horrors that many of the refugee children have seen, but I've seen plenty, and like them and so many children around the world, from a young age. So yes, I'm jaded, but I do still have hope. But I'm a realist and the world can be a very ugly place ,and I feel like some of us have to point it out if we ever want it to change.
There was ugliness this morning. A tiny Syrian boy with heartbreakingly beautiful eyes pulled one of his many horrible and unacceptable stunts. I think I may have mentioned him before as one of the children throwing stones on the day I wanted to just give up.
One of the volunteers had her camera out taking photos (she and I are currently the designated photographers, versed in the rules and cleared to take pictures) and playing with some of the children. They always ask to have their pictures taken, but we aren't allowed to post photos showing anybody full face. Anyway, she had left her camera bag on the bench beside her, and suddenly I glimpsed something round and black in the child's hand. I didn't see it well, but was pretty certain it was something to do with the Ellena's camera. I hoped it was just the lens cap. It wasn't. The child saw me look and immediately made a break for it. I alerted Ellena and we gave chase. He ran between the rows of shipping container houses, and then under them. Never a good idea since, of course, there are rats in the camp. (Fortunately, I don't see them often, and there are traps, but nevertheless...)
With the help of another Syrian child who crawled partway under the unit where the small boy was hiding, we recovered a second lens. The little boy who had taken the lens was furious and picked up a rock a little bigger than a grapefruit and threw it at my head.
It missed me, but I snatched him up and went to find somebody who could show me where he lived. The whole time I was carrying him, we struggled. He, trying to pummel me with his fists; me, trying to hold his wrists to avoid getting hit. He did manage to get in a few blows to my face and torso, but he really is tiny so no harm was done.
I knocked on the door of his house and his mother came out. She doesn't speak English and my Arabic certainly wasn't at a level to explain what happened, but with lots of hand gestures and a few words, I tried to explain what happened. I wanted her to know what he was doing. I wanted her to take some responsibility for the child.
Like many of the children he roams the camp unattended most of the day and well into the night. An Arabic and English speaking refugee man came over and translated. The mother seemed not to care at all until the child landed his hardest blow to my face. Then she slapped him across the face, and pulled him out of my arms and put him inside the house. I didn't want her to slap him. I just wanted her to pay some attention to what her child was doing.
Leaving their house, the man and another volunteer woman explained that the husband/father was in Sweden and the woman was alone and the child had suffered some trauma.
Yes, that's an old story, and not limited to refugees. Some of you know how much I can relate to those circumstances, and no, it's not easy. It's not easy at all, and I wasn't always a good parent myself, but I still can't understand how the mother can completely ignore the child and expect the rest of the world to take on all the responsibility for him. I had seen her a few times before, but never, ever with the child.
And this same child I've seen blossom when given a little attention. I've had run-ins with him before. He's an avid rock thrower. But at other times, when I or one of the other volunteers have managed to see him doing something positive, and praised him for it, he's like a different child. It's in those moments, however brief, that those big eyes melt your soul.
But we don't have the resources to really help. If we went to the IRC or UNHCR the child might be taken from the mother. Would that be a good thing? I don't know how to answer that. The child is certainly being neglected, as are many at camp, but for a child who has lost so much already, would it really help to take him from his mother? On the other hand, what's in store for him if things continue the way they are? Nothing good, likely.
There is another small boy here who seems to be in a similar situation; I never see him with his mother either. He too roams the camp alone all day and into the night. But for whatever reason, he is the camp darling. The volunteers coo over him constantly, and his behavior, while certainly not always perfect, is generally okay most of the time. Is it the attention he gets from volunteers that makes the difference? Would extra love and attention for the rock thrower make a difference? Probably. But it's really difficult to turn your love to someone who is such a problem, especially when there are so many children who are sweet and personable. The twelve-year old or so boy who is teaching me Farsi words, and translates whenever he's asked, and always has a smile, the eleven or twelve-year-old who helped us retrieve the camera lens and who held a discussion with me and one other young boy in which he argued that just because he and his friend were Sunni didn't mean they should think all Shi'a were bad, that you couldn't just lump people together by such criteria and decide they were all good or all bad, the eleven-year-old girl who has a great sense of fashion and a winning smile and always, always, does so much work for her family, picking up food at distribution and hauling it back, the little girl in the wheelchair who smiles as she turns the jump-rope for others, even though she can never jump herself...
There are so many children here. They have all been traumatized. Some of them have somehow taken that trauma and learned thoughtfulness from it. Some of them have learned only fear and hate, it seems. I wish there were enough volunteers to give them all the one on one time they need. I wish their parents weren't so traumatized or alienated or stressed to give them the care they need. I wish that were the case for parents and children everywhere.