‘I can speak five languages’ he says so faintly I had to ask ‘what?’, ‘I can speak five languages’ he repeats only a little more prominently this time, and then he goes on to list them: ‘English, Pashto, Dari, Farsi, and Arabic’, ‘do you think this will be useful somewhere in Europe?’ he asks me. He is a young Afghani, around 25 years old, which for some reason stayed a little longer with us instead of walking up to UNHCR’s stage-2 camp to be picked up by the buses. He was among the few still around, the rest having walked or been driven up by some of our volunteers. Like the refugees we found walking on the coastal road, so it was for refugee drive-ups to Stage-2, namely that families, old or otherwise infirm people were given priority (if we had cars for all this). So usually the people that lingered a little longer in the camp were typically young, in small groups bonded by friendship back in their countries or by the passage experience, but very few solitary ones like this young Afghani. I saw him leaning quietly on one of the wooden electric utility poles at the main entrance of our operations field.
‘I think it will be’ I tell him, to cheer up what looked like a face of absolute melancholy and, while I am not quite sure, a pair of wet eyes. ‘Anywhere you go, tell them this, then they may use you as an interpreter’ I add. ‘You think so?’ he asks, ‘Yes’ I tell him, ‘especially if you go to large countries like Germany, Sweden or Norway, where many refugees from Afghanistan seem to go, they will need such an interpreter in their reception centres’. He came alone, nobody waiting for him anywhere in Europe. I did not ask how many people he had left behind. Truth is, his melancholy got a bit into me. This and my knowledge of the first signs of the nasty political climate forming up in Europe regarding the refugee issue, did not make for a good mood ‘brew’. I could easily guess, that if Europe was to turn her back to the plight of these desperate people, the Afghanis would be the first to get the ‘treatment’, for the war in their country was the oldest and most forgotten one despite the recent flare-up that claimed Kunduz. Syrians will be the last as the war in Syria was the most recent, more prominent and bloodier, while a well-developed middle class formed a large sector of their refugee streams, one that the average European would feel more affinity.
I chat with him a little more, feeling guilty for wanting to move on. During the few quiet moments we had during our operations we focussed mostly on the children, as these were the most fun once you got them playful and going, and then to old people which sometimes would need a chat while resting on one of the benches. Even if no translator was at hand, the old people would gently nod and quietly smile at our attempts. Young guys like this Afghani would be a rarer choice, unless they came up to ask us something. A strange thing given that it was that age group (mostly of Syrians but often Iraqis and Afghanis) that we could often converse in English. It was from them that we learned about the particular war incidents, and the names…, the names of the destroyed cities and villages in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan that send off the particular wave of fear and desperation riding on the boats. From them we also learned about the ways of the human traffickers on the opposite coast, the tariffs per person (from 1000 to 2000 EUR), or the fact that when the weather got worse the traffickers simply lowered the tariffs rather than stop sending boats full with people out to sea (unless the weather was so extreme that chances of successfully reaching our shores became virtually zero).
As he slowly starts the walk up to the UNHCR/Stage-2 I bid the young Afghani farewell and wish him good luck. He grabs my hand for a handshake, as he faintly smiles, some more of his melancholy injects into me. ‘It is like he read my mind’ I tell myself, ‘all my do-good chit-chat about how useful his language skills will be upstream Europe just that, do-good chit-chat that he can see right through…’
It was then when I first asked myself: ‘Why the hell are we doing all this?’ ‘Why? If the rest of Europe will give them the cold shoulder or worse?’ (by late October reports of water-cannoning of refugees somewhere along the Balkan corridor started reaching us along with news of the first razor-wire fences being raised). An analogy I made then kept me happy during the times when our efforts of giving shelter, some help and kindness, and yes, understanding of their plight to these people seemed futile and so damn temporary. ‘Imagine inoculations’ I told myself, ‘they only last a moment but can protect one for long periods of time from a range of diseases’. If intolerance, hate and indifference to their plight are the ‘diseases’ that they would have to face in the rest of Europe, we could at least ‘inoculate’ them right here as best as we could. This simple metaphor worked greatly to keep my spirits up during my time in Sykaminia, but not all the time… not all the time. As the news about the reactions to these historic refugee movements in ‘upstream’ Europe became progressively darker, so was my mood…