A colleague of the foundation told me several weeks ago about a mostly deaf boy at the school in Moria who depicted a bomb explosion; most likely the cause of his handicap. Immediately I felt sorry for him. Even with all of your senses working well, it’s hard to get by in this camp. Everything is new, chaotic, dangerous. I thought about how eerily I found it to sleep in a new place with earplugs in. Without sound, it’s hard to get a complete picture of your surroundings. And what if there’s danger? Your ears can’t warn you! This boy is put into new (threatening) situations with new people all the time and he can never take out his earplugs. I felt a mild wave of panic. He must feel so lost, I thought.
Until I met Mustafa (7) in person. It’s a Monday morning at the school. I want to help him with some math, but I only have be distracted for a short time and he’s already finished. And boy, does he know how to communicate that. Big eyed, he pulls my sleeve and furiously points to his paper. This is the first, but certainly not the last time I see the strength in this child. I gets to me. And it makes me curious: what is the story behind this little lion?
I decide to find his mother to look into this. This was one of the most special days of my life. I would like to share it with you.
One Wednesday afternoon, together with an interpreter, photographer Kathelijne and I look for Mustafa’s container of roughly 20 square metres. He lives here with his mother, father, two sisters and another family of five. Once we arrive they greet us warmly at the door. The warmth of the refugees here continues to move me, as it does now. With help from the interpreter I explain to them I am writing stories about people in Moria for the website of Boat Refugee Foundation. I tell them I think Mustafa is a special child, that I would like to write about him and ask if mother would like to answer some questions. And if Kathelijne is allowed to take some pictures. Mustafa’s parents are glowing with pride and are eager to help. I thank them profusely and tell that I would like to go to a more quiet spot just outside Moria.
Suddenly the entire family disappears inside.
Surprised, I look at the interpreter: have they reconsidered? He laughs and shakes his head: ‘They are going to make him look good.’ Five minutes later they come out again. Mustafa is dressed to the nines. His expressive face has been washed, his hair has been combed with gel and he is wearing a dress shirt. It was endearing to see him so neat – almost shiny – among the junk in Moria. I haven’t got any children of my own, but my friends regularly send me cute pictures of their children in the most beautiful outfits. I now realize that for parents in Moria it’s just as important to show how pretty and adorable their kids are.
Everybody seems ready to go, but if we ask mother and Mustafa to come along with us, he sits on a rock with his arms crossed in front of him. It doesn’t take long to understand he will only come if his sister Rajaa (9) comes with us. Understandable. I would also be scared to get separated from my loved ones in a place where they are my only anchor. So Rajaa comes along.
‘I did everything to make him happy’
We walk towards a peaceful olive grove with olive trees, grass and flowers, a small distance outside Moria. Here we can have a quiet talk. Mustafa and Rajaa are running around and pose mischievously for Kathelijnes camera. Mother, the interpreter and I sit down on a blanket. When everyone’s comfortable, I ask my first question: ‘Can you tell me a little bit about Mustafa?’
Afta – that’s what Mustafa’s mother is called – immediately opens up: ‘I have to start at the beginning. When Mustafa was two, our house was bombed and he lost a major part of his hearing. After that, he had psychological problems. He was afraid to go out. He was depressed.’
I asked Afta how she knew this.
She puts her hand on her heart and says: ‘I’m his mother, you feel those things.’
I choke up.
‘How did Mustafa become the boy he is now?’ is my next question.
Afta tells how she was able to help her son recover with much love and attention. She taught him how to communicate with body language and took him outside to slowly start playing again with other children. ‘I did everything to make him happy.’
After a short pause: ‘He is doing fine now. He is cheerful and everybody likes him: the children and the volunteers here.’
I can relate to what Afta says. For many children, life in Moria is hard. Within the little class rooms they often fight. With his handicap, Mustafa might be a target for bullying, but the opposite happens. Instead, his class mates are kind to him and try to help him. Although that help is usually not needed. Recently, when I tried to point him towards the wrong class room (by now he was in the advanced class, which I didn’t know) he looked at me with indignation and continued to vigorously point at himself and at the correct door, until I let him enter.
I ask Afta about her bond with Mustafa. She answers with a big smile and sparkling eyes: ‘We are very close. Mustafa is a real mama’s boy. He is special to me, my only son. He is really a good kid. He always wants to protect his sisters, even though they are older and able to hear.’
Then her smile is replaced by a look of concern. ‘I worry about my children here in Moria. It’s dangerous for them, the circumstances are terrible. We live in one container with another family, they have older boys and they make a lot of noise. But that’s ok, they are good people. When we fled Iraq everyone said it would be better here, but it’s worse. Nobody listens to us and we have to wait a long time. We have been in Moria for three months now and our interview isn’t scheduled before the third of June. I want a better life for my children.’
‘I understand’, is what I say. In the meantime I wonder if I can really imagine what it must be like to live in Moria without any prospects, after all this family has already gone through. Probably not.
‘What’s it like for you?’ I ask her. She tells me she finds it hard. Her husband has trouble walking, which means Afta runs the household practically by herself. She washes, she gets in line for food every day and takes care of the children. I look at her and hope that, despite the language barrier, she can feel my sympathy. What a strong woman.
We are quiet for some time and together we laugh about Mustafa and Rajaa who happily run around among the flowers. The huge contrast is glaring.
I ask my last question: whether Afta knows what Mustafa would like to be when he grows up. She says he wants to study and get his own house, like every other child. And that the doctor in Moria has said that the damage to his hearing might be corrected.
I hope it can be.
I thank Afta for her openness and ask if she has anything to add.
‘I have prayed that there would be someone to listen to me and then you came. Thank you, I feel better now.’
Would you like to help Mustafa, Afta, Rajaa and other families in Moria?
We try to assist families in Moria, such as Mustafa’s family. For instance by running the elementary school where Mustafa and Rajaa learn Arabic, English, Math and social skills. Would you also like to do something for these families? You can, by donating. Every euro helps.
Text: Suzie Geurtsen
Photo’s: Kathelijne Reijse- Saillet