Written by Harriet Paintin, illustrated by Hannah Kirmes-Daly.
Moria at night, the smoke hanging thick between the olives trees, trees 100s of years old which have been all but stripped bare as the branches are used as firewood. In Lesbos, Greece, the segregated registration system means that all ‘non-Syrians’ are ‘processed’ and registered in a disused army base, built as a detention center, where white floodlights and three lines of barbed wire create a surreal backdrop to families trying to find a place to sleep outside. Tents and makeshift shelters made out of tarpaulins strung between trees, with groups of newly arrived families looking around in blank, exhausted confusion.
Being a refugee is an experience that people are currently facing – it is not an identity. In these conditions, where most conversations revolve around the horrendous journeys undertaken so far, and apprehension for what lies ahead, it can be difficult to let the individual shine through. But human interactions that take place around a fire at night, faces illuminated only by the flickering firelight, jokes, laughter, missing home, shows us that we all carry with us our personal stories of home, teenage crushes, embarrassments and in these moments it becomes clear that by no means is the refugee experience all that defines these people.
Sitting around a fire one particular evening with a group of Pakistani men, Hannah painting in the near darkness, their questions for information about the journey ahead quickly fell away into laughter and shared moments of embarrassment.
‘During my childhood I lived in a village. Yeah, I used to play in the village, guli danda, football. no, not cricket – but guli danda is just like cricket. We used to have fun, me and my friends.’
He sat in the middle of the group with his headscarf bound around his head in exactly the same way you see in towns and villages across South Asia. His eyes crinkled with laughter as he opened the doors to his memories, the cheeky things he used to get up to in his youth. Four others sat and watched with laughter in their eyes, feeding cardboard and twigs into the fire.
‘I had a girlfriend’, he went on, ‘and I used to go to her house when she telephoned me. In our villages this sort of thing isn’t allowed. Once when I was there her mum came home, and I had to hide in another room. Her mum came in and looked around, then she sat down. I had to walk past her to get out the house! So, I dressed in women’s clothes, I put on the niqab, and went outside. When I passed her mum I said ‘salaam alaikum’, she replied ‘walaikum asalaam’, and I walked on. Then another day, this happened again, and I did the same thing’.
Laughter filled the atmosphere between us and he grinned sheepishly before continuing.
‘Sometimes I used to dress up in the niqab and go to the shop in the village, and ask for Pepsi, sugar, other things. Then I’d say I didn’t have any money, I would write my name and come back later’, and he agreed, I wouldn’t go back later! Sometimes I’d walk around the village where the niqab, go up to women and say ‘hello hello’.’
At this point, one of the others spoke up, ‘sat here talking with you people like this, its refreshed us. We’re not thinking about those we’ve left behind, the difficult journey, this torment has left us for the moment. We’ll look back on this time fondly, inshallah, we’ll remember this.’