I’m a seven-year old girl. My name is Zahra. I ask of the United Nations to open the way. My mother and father are not safe. We lost our whole life and now we are stuck at this border. I ask that whoever receives this letter reads it. The life of my brother and sister is also in danger.
I, Zahra Rezai, Afghan from Ghazni, Qarabaghi
Suheila is a woman with blue-green eyes, whose face is framed by a bright purple headscarf. She looks down at her shoes as she explains why her daughter Zahra wrote the letter. “As a woman in Afghanistan, I wasn’t allowed to go to school. Zahra is the only one in our family who can read and write.”
Zahra had run up and handed me a small envelope – a piece of paper folded in half and taped together at the sides. The top flap was also taped down. I fumble with it as she stares at me in anticipation, a wide, one-tooth-short smile on her face.
“It’s like a jail here. I try to keep my children indoors most of the time, to protect them from fighting with other children or getting a disease,” Suheila tells me. “Our family arrived here just as Serbia closed the border. Since then, every day we wake up hoping this will be the day when they’ll allow us to move.”
Suheila is talking about Tabanovce, a small town in the north of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, less than a kilometre away from the border with Serbia. Refugees and migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan used to pass through Tabanovce on their way from Greece to Serbia and onwards. Today, what used to be a transit center is turning into a de facto refugee camp.
Zahra is one of the 500 children who have been stranded in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as a result of several ad-hoc border restrictions leading up to the closure of the so-called Balkan land route on 7 March. The first to be prevented from continuing their journey were the Afghans, who have been in Tabanovce for seven weeks already.
There was nothing more I could say to Zahra and her mother about the opening of borders. They’ve heard about the deal between the European Union and Turkey. Greece will send some people back to Turkey, some will be able to apply for the intra-EU relocation scheme. But the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is neither part of the EU, nor does it share a border with Turkey. People will be here for a while.
“We left so our children could be safe and get an education,” Suhaila said softly. “I always had a complex about not being able to read and write. I don’t want my children to grow up with the same thing.”
I’m looking at Zahra’s letter as I write this. I’ve taken it out of its envelope many times and tried to read the pencilled foreign script. I can’t. I also don’t know how to read. I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t had a translator with me. I may well have forgotten about it. It’s easier for us to overlook things we don’t understand. Or people.
Children like Zahra have gone through so much insecurity and hardship in their short lives. They’ve had to grow up faster than any child should and take on responsibilities heavy beyond their years. We too should take on the responsibility of ensuring they don’t continue to be overlooked.
Claudia Liute is a Regional Emergency communications Specialist with UNICEF Regional Office for Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, out-posted in Skopje, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.