Sidra is, I’m guessing, 17 or 18 years old. She was with her mum and two little brothers when I met her yesterday. She said something about her baba, her dad, but I couldn’t work out what.
We met me as a volunteer clad in a high vis vest and my ID stamped by the Port Police. Sidra and her family sitting on the ground in Chios Port. In my eyes, we met as equals – just two women who were in the same place at the same time. But in the eyes of our judgemental world, where one person feels the need to be superior to another, I’m allowed to move freely around, and Sidra isn’t. So I met Sidra as she sat at the edge of a group of 53 refugees, people separated into 27 men, 11 women and 15 children; the human cargo of the third boat landing from Turkey of the morning.
Like everyone from the boat, Sidra was wearing warm, thick layers of clothes having dressed to survive a cold, overnight crossing of the Aegean Sea in a dinghy. But now, as the Greek morning sun got hotter and hotter, it was becoming increasingly uncomfortable.
I didn’t notice her to begin with. I was helping mums with babies – giving them a dry clothes pack and some nappies. When that was done I was asked to look after the pop-up ‘changing tent’ which the volunteers provide so women and children can change from their wet clothes to the dry ones we’ve just given them; if they want to. Sidra’s mum and middle brother, maybe 12 years old, jumped in straight away. As they were changing, Sidra – who didn’t speak any English – jumped at the chance to chat. Or try to! She was so animated and engaged and it was fun trying!
When mama came out of the changing room she came over too. She wanted to ask a question.
‘Chios?’, and I nodded. Then she acted out sleeping and said ‘caravan?’ She was asking me where they would be living. My heart sank as I shook my head and said ‘khayma‘ – Arabic for tent. I saw the disappointment in her eyes for just a second and then resolve acceptance. But I don’t think at that point she could imagine just how bad it’s going to be.
Maybe she’s imagining the camps we see on tv from Jordan or Lebanon – large white tents in rows – streets, villages, community. Camps, but with life. I doubt very much she’s picturing a disused waste processing plant in a remote hillside with pop-up festival tents pitched in every square centimetre of the rough factory grounds?
I doubt she pictures their first nights with nothing, not even a tent because there’s no space left to put one up? My heart sank for what I knew they were soon going to learn the hard way. This could be their life – on this island ‘prison’ for many months, maybe even years, to come.
In an attempt to stop myself crying in front of them, I distracted myself with Sidra’s brother who was grinning with pride in his new clothes. So I threw him a huge smile and told him he looked very handsome and he grinned even more although I’m sure he had no idea what I said.
The next second the changing tent was empty for a moment and Sidra popped in only to emerge a few moments later with her new bright pink hijab on. She loved it and I told her she looked jamila, beautiful!
It was maybe 10.30 by now and the sun was already very hot. I was wilting! Sidra, mama and the 51 other people were now sitting in full sunshine. I saw an old man sitting on his own. He was scared to get up. But he saw a few others moving and got courage. He hobbled over to an old lady holding a baby and his face lit up just being with his family again. I felt tears welling up for a second time…
Most of our high vis team had gone by now and it was time for us to go too. As any of us would do, mama took out her phone to take a picture of her daughter and her ‘new friend’, but no phones or cameras are allowed in the port area and so mama was barked at by the Port Police. They should have barked at me, too – busy posing instead of thinking – but they didn’t. We are not equal.
Sidra and mama shook my hand warmly as we said goodbye and I wished them luck. I knew as I left that the bus wouldn’t be coming for them for more than an hour. Our team had at least given lots of water to the port police who were being as kind as their jobs allow.
Sometimes you meet a person who is so full of happiness and hope. Sidra was such a person. Her mama and brothers too. They’re going to need to fight hard to hold on to who they are with what Europe is about to throw at them.
I left the port yesterday freely in a car. Later we volunteers ate a delicious rice meal for lunch, I spent the night in an exceptionally comfy (very good value) AirBNB and left Chios this morning boarding a warm, safe ferry that cost me just €21. Why can’t everyone have this?
Sidra’s family’s dinghy journey to hell will have cost them more than €10,000. Imagine a slight change of policy that meant they could have boarded the ferry in Turkey and crossed for €12 each, like we can. They could have arrived in Europe with €10,000 and rented their own apartment, bought their own food and clothes. Their money could be fuelling the Greek economy right now. Instead, criminal gangs have it. A million times over. EU short-sightedness funding some of the world’s most dangerous criminals.
Please, someone, explain the political logic of this, because I will never understand it. Or forgive the human cost.
As we were leaving a local Greek woman asked if she could give the children some sweets she’d bought for them. The Port Police readily let her and she went and handed them around. I found tears in my eyes once again. Efcharistó polý…. you gave me hope in humanity again.
Dear Europe – please don’t break Sidra and her family with your inhumanity.
Dear Sidra – I’m so sorry that I can do so little for you than offer a warm welcoming smile and a pink hijab. You truly are jamila. Good luck doesn’t even start to cover it.