For the prose challenge, which was to write a story based on the most disgraceful story in your lifetime. It’s also inspired by my sister in law and her partner, who are volunteers in Kos at the moment, with a refugee charity.
The boat is very small, and we’re crammed in like sardines in a can. I say this to my father, trying to make a joke, but he doesn’t laugh. Nobody in the boat has laughed since we set off. There are three families in the boat; us, a family that I don’t know, the Turkhans, and our friends the Barghoutis with their little boy, Feroz. Feroz means fortunate one, but I don’t think Feroz is very fortunate at all, having to leave his home and cross the sea in a little boat. He is very small, and doesn’t know what’s going on. He’s four and a half, exactly half my age. He cries a lot.
When we set off it seemed like an adventure, especially after all the time we had to wait in the camp at the seaside. That wasn’t so bad, particularly as I didn’t have to go to school, and there were plenty of people my age to play with, but there was never enough to eat, and sleeping in a tent for more than one night isn’t much fun. I soon missed my bed.
The boat is made of rubber, and is like a toy boat, but it’s all we can afford. My father says we were lucky to get it. I have a lifejacket on, as does my mother, but my father doesn’t have one. He says it’s ok, he can swim well, but I think it’s because he spent the money on the boat and food instead. I worry what will happen if the boat sinks. The Turkhans all have very nice lifejackets, better than mine. There are four of them, a mother, father and two little girls, smaller than me. None of them talks much. The mother just cries, and huddles into the bottom of the boat and sleeps, or pretends to. I watched her and saw one eye open. She saw me looking and shut it quickly. She kept her eyes shut tight for the longest time, then opened both of them wide and stared straight at me. She shouted something then, and turned away.
I like to laugh, at least I used to. Our home was lovely; the window of my bedroom looked into our garden. Sometimes my good friends, Gilad and Sabir, would come round, and we’d play in the garden, and my mother would give us little snack, some sfiha perhaps, and a cold drink. It was when Sabir’s house got blown up that my father said we would have to go, across the sea. I miss Sabir. He was my best friend from kindergarten, and all the way through school. We were known as the terrible two in grade 1, because we always stood up for each other if there was a fight.
The sea is very big. I had no idea what it would be like. We can’t see anything but grey waves in every direction. Mr Barghouti is steering, at the back of the boat, because he knows what to do. Father says he’s a keen fisherman, and has been out in boats a lot of times. He says it will be an easy journey, but I think he looks worried. I don’t think he really does think it will be easy. He’s very nervous of Feroz, and keeps barking at Mrs Barghouti to watch him.
We’ve been in the boat all day, and I wonder when we’re going to get to Greece, the island we’re heading for. It’s getting dark now and I wonder how Mr Barghouti will know which direction to steer the boat. My father says they have a compass, but how will he see it in the dark? And how will they see land, or another boat? My father says not to worry about that, but I do. I go to my mother, and she gives me a cuddle, which makes me feel better. She has a blanket, which is all damp from the spray, but she puts it round us both and tells me to go to sleep.
When I close my eyes I’m more aware of the motion of the boat, and it makes me feel funny inside, but I must have slept because the next thing I know is when I hear shouting, and it’s dark, very dark, no lights anywhere, except for a flashlight that Mr Barghouti is shining at the sea. It’s a very bright light, but only lights up a tiny circle in the waves around us. He’s standing up, not steering any more. My father is steering, but he’s half standing, and looking where the light is shining. Mrs Barghouti is crying loudly, so is Mrs Turkhan. They’re watching the light too. My mother is sitting up and she’s not crying but she’s all rigid. She’s holding me so tight that it’s hurting. I ask her what’s wrong, what’s happened, then I realise: Feroz isn’t in the boat any more.
I scramble to my knees, to help look for him. My mother holds my arm tightly, tells me to stay still. I think she thinks I am going to fall out of the boat also. I tell her I won’t fall out, but she still holds me. The boat’s engine is going slow, and my father holds the rudder hard over to the right. This will make the boat go left. I remember being told about this in class. We’re going round in a big circle, trying to find Feroz. We do this for a long time, so long that it starts to get light. The light grows slowly, a grey, cold light, not like mornings that I remember, when I’m woken by the sun warming my room, shining on the poster I have on my wall of my football team, Al-Hurriya. I think of my poster, and feel sad. I don’t think I’ll ever see it again.
Now that it’s light we should be able to see Feroz. I stand, and hold on to my mother’s shoulder. The boat is pitching up and down, and the waves around us seem very big, so it’s difficult to stay standing, and even more difficult to see anything in the water. My mother and Mrs Barghouti scream as a wave pours water into the boat, and my father tells me to help get the water out. It’s called baling, and for quite a long time I scoop water from the bottom of the boat with a plastic cup and throw it back into the sea. My mother and Mrs Turkhan are baling as well. From time to time more water splashes into the boat as another wave comes over the side, and my father tells Mr Barghouti that we could all die if we don’t get under way again. By this time the sun is well up in the sky and we have not seen any sign of Feroz.
Mr and Mrs Barghouti talk in low voices for a while, then Mrs Barghouti starts shouting and crying very loudly, so loudly that the two Turkhan girls start to cry, Their mother holds them to her and Mr Turkhan speaks to Mr and Mrs Barghouti. I look away because I don’t like to see things like that. My mother speaks to my father and soon all six adults are arguing, with Mrs Barghouti crying louder and louder. I look out to sea, still looking for Feroz. We could miss seeing him with all this arguing.
Then the argument stops all of a sudden. Mr Barghouti moves to the back of the boat and, without a word, gets the engine going full again and we pick up speed. Mrs Barghouti still looks at the sea, and turns round every so often to speak to Mr Barghouti in a harsh voice. I feel sad for them, and for Feroz, even though I hardly knew him.
After a while my mother rummages in her bag, and brings out a big piece of Kibbeh bil sanieh, wrapped in paper. She gives me some, then my father, then takes some for herself. It’s cold, of course, but it’s still very good because she made it. I didn’t realise until I started eating just how hungry I was. As I eat I look out to sea. If I can see Feroz it would make his mother and father very happy. But all I can see is the grey waves.
After a while my eyes grow heavy and I curl up beside my mother, who puts an arm round me. I must have slept, because I’m groggy when Mr Turkhan shouts. ‘Land!’ and points ahead, and to the left. I see a smudge of land. It seems far away, but I watch it until my eyes hurt. It gets bigger, and in a while we’re so close we can see figures on the shore. Some of the figures wave to us. When I hear the boat scraping on what sounds like pebbles I stand up. My mother still holds my arm, and my father comes forward, and picks up the three bags we’ve brought with us. All we have is in these three bags. All my toys and books, all our ornaments, our pots and pans, our glasses and plates, are still in our house, in a different country now.
My father dumps the bags on the dry sand and comes back for me and my mother. My mother jumps in to the water, lifts me from the boat, hands me to my father. A large man with a bushy moustache wades after my father, takes my mother’s arm, and helps her to the shore. The three of us sit on the sand, wet and exhausted. I see Mr and Mrs Barghouti move off, down the beach, and I know they’re looking for Feroz.
And now we’re in another tent, in a field surrounded by a fence with barbed wire on top. We’ve been here for five days. My father is away all day, helping people, which he can do because he’s a doctor. When he comes back each night he’s grey and tired. He looks older than he did when we were at home. Every night he and my mother talk in low voices, and sometimes my mother cries. Once my father cried, and I cried too, quietly, to myself, curled up in my sleeping bag, because I didn’t want to make them sadder.
I wonder where we’ll go next, when we’ll get to Germany. I have no idea where Germany is, but everyone in the camp wants to go there, because there’s food and houses, and my father says there will be work for him. I wish we were there. I wish we were anywhere, really, except here.