Khaled had a pretty big family. It was hard to miss his mischievous young step brothers causing havoc all around the camp. His parents had come to the request table often. And Khaled and his wife had become kind of friends with me. I only found they were all related when Khaled killed a snake in his family’s tent. Everybody crowded around. The snake’s head was crushed, but its body still flailed about.
Our first concern was whether there would be more and whether they were venomous. There was about a 50/50 chance the one Khaled found could send you to the hospital, and Doctors without Borders had no protocol for snake bites. Build a tall wall around your tent, they said.
We passed on the information, and the family remains ‘the snake family’.
My relationship with Khaled was the most difficult I had at Hara. He lived with his wife, both of them perhaps 25 or less, away from the rest of his family. His step brothers (if I understood the connection correctly) were the typical rambunctious children; oscillating between cuteness and boisterousness. I’m fairly sure that one of the children stole my sweatshirt.
After I had seen Khaled a couple times, he invited me to sit down with him to talk. He had his prayer beads in his hands and was twirling them artfully. I had gotten some prayer beads in Istanbul last year, but couldn’t do much more than play with the beads. I asked him to teach me and we sat for a bit practicing.
I couldn’t get the hang of it at all. I told him I had my own prayer beads and that I would bring them the next day. It was a complicated phrase, but I eventually got it across through Google translate. He stopped twirling the beads and asked for my phone to translate something.
We used Google to talk for the next half hour. He had his phone crushed by the Macedonian police and his wife desperately needed to speak with her parents back in Syria. I learned from someone else that she had left with Khaled and his family to try to get to Europe without her parents’ approval. Now they were stuck at the border and her mother was sick.
Phones are extremely valuable for refugees. Before the border was shut, communicating over the internet was the only way to find out where to go next, and who to trust. Many people were without phones because they had been stolen or damaged by Macedonian police. They were without access to the news. They had no idea whether the border was going to be open, and rumors that it would open were abound every few days. I wonder if some even knew about the EU-Turkey deal.
He just needed to contact them, so I offered my phone to him. I told him he could use Facebook, email or Whatsapp, or whatever he needed. He rejected it, he wanted his own phone or his family’s use. He wanted me to buy him a phone.
Even a prepaid one was complicated to purchase and use; it had to be kept up with occasional payments for data or calls. I told him the same thing I told many with difficult requests: I would talk to others to get it sorted.
He clicked his tongue. I couldn’t understand quite understand why, but he didn’t want me to arrange it with others. I told I have to speak with others to find out how to do it even. He settled on that topic and requested another tent for himself.
Tents are extremely hard to come by, and if new arrivals come to the camp or other tents get damaged beyond repair, there’s no worse night than one out in the cold without privacy. We give out tents only in the worse circumstances, not just because somebody doesn’t want to sleep in a tent with another adult and three children.
But this was Khaled’s request. I never reject a request until I fully understand the needs, so I said we would decide at night, when we bring the tents. I think it was communicated.
I forgot my prayer beads the next day, but brought them the day after. He began to teach me, but his real concern was the phone. I told him I had to speak with others about that, even if he didn’t want me to. He again requested the tent and I gave him the same answer.
Three nights after his phone request, after we had left him another two nights without the tent he requested, he stayed up to find us (we usually came at 1am). He pressed. I asked him who exactly it was for. He couldn’t quite give an answer. I asked to see his tent, or at least the people it would be for. His answer was again jumbled. I told him we save the tents for people who need them.
He stared me in the eye and spoke in an irritated voice. He didn’t wait for the translator to translate what he said and walked off, stumbling on the clothing lines behind him in a clear fit of anger. I learned later that he said he would never ask for anything from me again.
I couldn’t focus the rest of the night. To reject someone in dire need from the most basic of necessities is to reject him his decency. Yet that’s what volunteers were there for. Volunteers had to determine whether refugees were more needy than other refugees – refugees, people who face a world that rejects them on all fronts.
I didn’t see him the day after, although I saw the rest of his family.
The next day, I saw him early in the morning. it had rained the night before and was going to thunderstorm in the afternoon, so we were in a rush to cover each tent with waterproof nylon. As I began cutting the nylon with another Syrian, he came over and stood by us. When we finished, he grabbed an armfull of nylon to distribute.
It was one of the most difficult tasks, because everybody wanted some, and even needed some, but it had to be saved for only the most needy. We didn’t speak, only shook hands, but he helped with the most important task for everybody in the camp.