Make space for this wonderful story!
In 2015 Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, invited refugees fleeing their war-torn countries to Germany. She promised them refuge and the chance to build new lives. And so we saw scenes on our TV screens of thousands of refugees crossing dangerous water in little orange dinghies in the hope of a new home.
Moved by the pictures and wanting to help, my sister Zainub and I decided to volunteer at the Lesvos Island camp in January 2016. This is where the United Nations had set up a tent to process ID papers that would permit refugees to travel through European countries to reach Germany. We knew volunteers were needed to help with preparing food and handing out dry clothes.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but nothing prepared me for the sight of babies and children in the camp.
Little baby girls sitting out in the cold at Moria camp, Lesvos Island.
No amount of chocolate could entice a smile from this boy. He had lost his mother and was travelling with his two older brothers and his father.
This is Sham, in the line for refugee papers with her 16-year-old sister and widowed mother.
It was these children that inspired my book Follow the Moon (Collins Big Cat for Little Wandle). Here is the story of when I met little Alaa, taken from my blog written in 2016 at the camp.
Zainub and I pulled up on the road close to a group of about 50 refugees who had just landed on the beach. I looked around and noticed Scott, a Canadian volunteer walking around with a little girl who looked about two years old. She was wrapped in a green blanket which reminded me of Kermit the Frog. I smiled at the little girl but she did not respond. Some of the children refuse to make eye contact after the terror of their journey. I asked Scott where her parents were.
‘I found her walking around by herself calling “Papa”. Her father is in the medical van being seen to. I’ve been holding her since.’
I took out a Quality Street chocolate from my bag and held it in front of her. Her eyes flickered slightly. I asked Scott if I could hold her to feed the chocolate and he handed her over to me.
Settling down on the ground, I unwrapped the orange cream and then pulled one of her arms out of the blanket. She took it and began to eat it slowly. As the sugar hit her, she met my eyes for the first time and allowed a small curve to her lips.
Zainub came over and I passed the little girl to her. We began to play peekaboo and the curve turned into a small smile. Another volunteer, Marian from Germany, walked over to us with silver foil and a pair of tights. She had run out of children’s hats and was improvising. She placed the foil over the little girl’s head and secured it with the crotch of the tights. It was vital that the little girl did not lose any more body heat after spending three hours on the boat.
‘Where are her parents?’ Marian asked.
‘Her father is in the medical van,’ I replied. ‘Not sure about the mother.’
Marian gave me a concerned look. ‘The medical van has left. Four more boats have arrived near the airport and the medics are needed there.’
As we stood under the winter sun, the most awful thoughts flew through my mind. Where was her father? What if he hadn’t survived the journey? What if she was now an orphan?
I picked up the little girl and Zainub and I walked through the crowd to see if we could find out what had happened to him. Suddenly the little girl’s face broke out into a huge smile as a man in his thirties hobbled over to us on an injured leg. ‘Papa.’ I cannot describe the relief I felt.
Her name is Alaa and she has a four-year-old sister Suha, and a six-year-old brother Mohammed. They are travelling with their father Yamen who steered the boat when the smugglers jumped ship.
As we stood around in a small group waiting for the UN coach to take them to the camp, some of the other refugees jokingly referred to him as ‘the Captain’. Yamen laughed with them and then suddenly out of the blue, tears welled up in his eyes. ‘I was so scared for my children.’ Alaa, Suha and Mohammed’s mother died three months ago. She was killed by a sniper in Halib, Syria.
You can read more on Sufiya’s blog
You can find Sufiya on Twitter here @sufiyaahmed