Recently, as I edited a section of my upcoming first novel, I realized I had written a description of the fate of many Ukrainians as they flee their homeland. The only difference is that my piece was set outside Damascus in Syria and the group was fleeing to Beirut in Lebanon. This was also the result of war, but in Syria and again with Russian involvement.
I wanted to share this as I hope it explores the realities that refugees face as they try to escape the horrors of war. I would suggest we cannot sit, watching from afar. Both Ukrainians and Syrians are human beings and perhaps a few minutes in their shoes will allow us to see them more authentically. They are us and we are them. How can we help? I always think awareness and a little understanding is a great place to start.
Rashid's group gathered their belongings in a small pile. They all stood, speechless, watching groups of people trudge along the sides of the road. Rashid’s party were about to join these lines of misery heading into an uncertain future. Rashid sensed these families had been broken by the endless cycles of violence and hardship. Their silence and their downward stares spoke loudly. This walk into the unknown was their last desperate hope of having a future and a life worth living where they could raise their youngsters. They had given up their homes, their furniture, their neighbors, their markets, their cafés, their jobs, their worlds. Most carried their essential needs and their valuables. Some pushed carts or children’s strollers, loaded with their belongings. Their slow pace gave the line of people the ambience of grieving mourners at a funeral. Grief gripped the hearts of these refugees. In addition to having just lost their normal daily lives, too many had lost loved ones in the war that had raged in their neighborhoods.
Rashid broke the trance that held the group as they stood in the late afternoon sun. “Come on. Let’s join this exodus.” He watched each of them grab their bag from the pile of luggage. He heard them groan a little as the weight of their loads became a reality to each of them. They started walking and became refugees, fleeing Damascus.
When the four children complained about being tired, their mothers turned around to cajole them to keep walking. When the youngest said they felt exhausted, Rashid rearranged his duffel bag and gave them a ride on his back for a short distance.
The caravan of people, occasional animals, and carts slowly slogged on. Rashid sensed his own muscles start to complain. Seeing others hobble for a few steps, he wondered if their feet felt painful or if they were just weary, but he sensed people didn’t dare stop. As they overtook other groups, the look in some people’s eyes portrayed doubt of their abilities to sustain themselves for the journey. He sensed fear hung heavy in the minds of all. When small issues in other families took on proportions that they didn’t necessarily deserve, Rashid guided his flock away from the verbal squabbles.
Babies’ and children’s cries became an ever-present backdrop to the caravan; they stretched his patience. He felt thankful the stress that had begun to show in some families hadn’t taken hold in his own. At times, they bickered and exchanged angry words, but these exchanges were brief and resolved quickly.
Rashid’s group avoided other families who exchanged hostile words. They seemed resolute except for Salman who sulked and trudged slowly, at times. Rashid told him and Faisal stories to distract them so they kept pace with the girls. Once in a while, Dareen dropped back to join the girls so she could sing a song to them or tell them a silly story. Rashid watched her and was amazed at how many imaginative thoughts she conjured. He wished he could do the same for the boys.
Faisal suddenly moved to the side of the road and sat in the sand. “I’m not walking any further.”
Salman saw this as his lead. He slumped down next to Faisal. “Me, neither.”
Rashid felt no surprise as he had sensed a little rebellious patter between the two boys. He saw Dareen take Natasha to one side to have a quiet talk with her. Fatima looked at Rashid while Tahira wrapped her arms around her mother’s legs.
Rashid chuckled as he squatted next to the two boys who seemed to be pleased with their little victory. They had stopped the march. He laughed again and looked down at Faisal. “So, my boy, if we stay here for some time, are you going to be willing to walk all the way back to Damascus to buy us food in the next few days?”
“Then, why are you sitting here? Our next good meal is in Beirut, which we will only reach by walking along the road, in that direction.” He pointed westward.
“I know. I’m just tired and I miss my friends. Salman, he’s not much fun.”
“I appreciate this is very tough, but right now, I need you to be a man about this. We have to be strong and I know you’re capable.”
Fatima spoke quietly, “Come on, Faisal. Mohammed would want you to do as your father asks. He might have protested but he’d have recognized your father was right to undertake this journey. Please, come along.”
Faisal looked down at the road, pushed himself upward, and stood back on his feet. He offered a hand to Salman. “Come on, we have some miles to walk this evening.”
They walked on, passing other families who had stopped for the night. The moon hung low in the sky, giving them enough light to walk easily along the sand next to the road. Sometimes, trucks and cars thundered down the road without any apparent care for the fleeing refugees. The refugees simply took a few steps onto the sand until the vehicle passed. Rashid saw a flow and a rhythm in how the people made their ways, slowly, along the road. He didn’t see their progress as being automated, but it seemed the less people thought about their situation and simply adjusted their stride to the rise and fall of the road, then the easier their journey might become.
He and mainly Dareen contained the small outbursts that their four youngsters had, as the miles passed. They complained about being hungry, they were bored, they felt tired, they were just not happy. Everything about their progress was slow and painfully hard, especially for the children.
A few hours after darkness had fallen and when they all were tired, Rashid pulled out a flashlight and led them about 100 yards away from the road to rest for a few hours.
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