Going to school in a dinghy

We knew we might die on the way in the sea, but one death is better than another death. A probable death in the sea is better than a certain death back at home.  –Syrian father


This is not a story

Last week I drove my car at 5am to take an early train from Geneva to Belgrade, where I was to spend a week covering the refugee crisis. Swiss public transport is of high quality. Taxis are even better. I once called for a taxi at 6am, and the taxi operator apologized that no taxis were available at 6am, but they could get me one at 6.05. I complained.

While I was primarily on this trip as an Arabic/English translator, I also wanted to come back with personal stories and pictures to help clarify mysteries about the refugees: Who are they? Why are they leaving? Where are they going? During the train ride, I reviewed my notes on storytelling. Different books tell you different things about storytelling, but they all agree that stories have a basic structure: a beginning, a middle and an end. But that’s not the refugees’ stories, and it’s definitely not Udai’s story.

A week with the refugees

The week started quietly. It was night when we arrived at the Belgrade bus station, which is next to a public park. The park had small tents. At first I didn’t realize what they were. They looked like plastic tents kids use for picnics, but they weren’t. They were refugee tents.

The next day we went to a child-friendly space for refugee children set up by UNICEF and other organizations. I thought to myself “Child-friendly space”? Shouldn’t the whole world be child-friendly? Do we need to create a special space for children to feel safe and to have a childhood? Unfortunately, for refugee children, the world is not a child-friendly place.

At the entrance of the child-friendly space were leaflets on asylum seeking, guidelines for breastfeeding, and tips for supporting children during the crisis. Inside were tables with food, drinks, toys, puzzles, paper and crayons. At the end of the hall, a mattress lay on the floor for play and rest. I took a small plastic ball tossed it to 10-year-old Ahmed.

People on the move, crossing borders in Serbia.
People on the move, crossing borders in Serbia.

Life in transit

For many travelers, being in transit is one of the trip’s irritants, especially if the flight is late. During that week, I met many people whose entire life is in transit, awaiting departure at an unknown time to an unknown destination, which might be another transit place in itself.

Noah’s rubber dinghy

The refugee narrative is the same, but each individual’s story is unique, just like human beings. An ordinary life, interrupted by the same old fairy tale monster, called The War. A war that the refugees say they “have no camel in,” the equivalent of the English expression “We have no horse in this race,” suggesting you have no interest in the matter and you are not taking sides. Individuals and families fled Iraq and Syria after bombs, rockets and strangers destroyed their homes, offices, and schools. They flew or walked to Turkey, then took a dinghy late at night to some island in Greece. The boats are usually made for 10 people and carry 30, 40, or 50; the more you pay, the fewer your co-passengers. There is no captain for the dinghy. The smugglers take the money, and point their finger somewhere in the sea, saying, “Go that way.” You might be asked to empty your backpack, to reduce weight in the boat. You pack your life’s belongings in a backpack, and then you empty it. You leave behind a happy past, escaping from a terrifying present, and head towards an unknown future.

The children’s paintings reflected their thoughts, memories and hopes: sunny skies, gardens with green grass, flowers, Santa Claus, flags, and ice cream.
The children’s paintings reflected their thoughts, memories and hopes: sunny skies, gardens with green grass, flowers, Santa Claus, flags, and ice cream.

The refugees who survive – and not all do – travel from Iran, Turkey or Greece to the former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, and hopefully on to Germany, Sweden, or somewhere else in Western Europe. They are mostly Syrian, followed by Iraqis, and a few Afghans, Pakistanis, and Africans.

I met Zahraa, a Syrian girl who hadn’t been to school for two years. She was helping her brother put together a puzzle, and was painting a sunny garden with flowers and butterflies. I talked to Sarah and Oussam, a young Iraqi couple who were injured on the way, carrying their sick two-month-old baby boy Haydar (“Lion” in Arabic). Oussam, a government employee and Sunni Iraqi, suffered persecution in Iraq at the hands of both Sunnis and Shiias, something he never knew in his childhood, coming from a mixed Sunni/Shiite marriage. Sarah was desperately looking for a clean pacifier for her child. I talked to Hayla, a young Syrian woman with her charming 6-year-old daughter Judi. In Arabic, Judi is the name of the mountain on which Noah’s Ark landed. Where will Zahraa, Sarah, Hayla, and Judy land?


My most memorable moment was with Udai, the 13-year-old unaccompanied Syrian boy from El Sham. We waited for Udai to come back from school at the Serbian center for asylum seekers. The officials in charge gave us an overview of how the center works. The children’s pictures and paintings said much. One poster had pictures of children from all over the world put together in a big heart. The children’s paintings reflected their thoughts, memories and hopes: sunny skies, gardens with green grass, flowers, Santa Claus, flags, and ice cream.

Udai came running down the stairs of the Serbian asylum center carrying his smart phone (one of the Arabic meanings of Udai’s name comes from the word ‘running’). Udai left Syria with his parents and siblings over a year ago. They went to Turkey and shared an apartment with other refugees. His father worked for a while then took his daughter to Germany, as they didn’t have enough money for everyone to go. He worked in Germany, made some more money and brought his wife and younger son. Udai stayed alone for five months due to finances. He then went to Greece by boat. For that story, Udai’s has an “I can’t believe I got out of that one safely” expression on his face. Udai and I chatted about sports – he likes basketball – movies and much more. Udai goes to school and is learning Serbian. He particularly enjoys sports and music classes, and is making new friends.


 Udai, 13, an unaccompanied Syrian boy from El Sham and his phone.
Udai, 13, an unaccompanied Syrian boy from El Sham and his phone.

Connecting people

But Udai’s best friend is probably his smart phone. Udai talks to his parents every day, surfs the web, plays games, watches TV, takes pictures, and spurs happy memories. Udai proudly told us that his sister got the highest grades in her German school after only one year and he showed us a copy of the German newspaper clipping.

Udai’s mother phoned and I spoke to her. She asked, and I could almost feel her heart beating, “When will Udai join us?” I reassured her that Udai was in good hands and will join them soon. I congratulated Om Udai (Udai’s mother) on her well-brought up, smart, and courageous son. It was the first day of the Muslim Eid Al Adha, and I expressed my wish that they would spend the next Eid together as a family.

It is important to remember that the migrants we met in Europe, with their suffering and tragic stories, are the lucky ones. They didn’t die in the war, were rich enough to afford the long journey and lucky enough to survive the mighty and indifferent sea waves.

Compared to my typical week in Geneva, I heard fewer complaints that week with the refugees.

It was a week unlike any other. It was a week of people, events, and movement. It was a week of emotions, sadness, and hope. Hope that Zahraa, Haydar, Judy, Udai and other children will make it to school, even if in a dinghy.

In refugee and asylum centers in Serbia and Croatia, and on the borders between several former Yugoslavian countries, I met many humans in transit. Some call them refugees, others migrants. I prefer to call them human beings. It is how I’d like to describe myself.

Read this story in Spanish in El Pais

Omar Mahmoud, Chief of Market Knowledge in UNICEF’s Private Fundraising & Partnerships division, with 30 years of research experience in the private sector and international organizations.

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