People

The Tent Designer

The only time we met was for a brief conversation. We stood by his tent and spoke, and although I didn’t see him again, his tent remained and was occupied by others. I mad sure I asked him his name, which was Aqil.

When I asked his name, it was as though I opened the window on a speeding car. Maybe he hadn’t had to introduce himself to someone in a while. He told me about his story.

He was a large man who didn’t fit in his shoes or trousers, and he came to me to ask if I could find better fitting clothes. I had been running between tasks, and when he stopped me, my energy level was clearly above his. I explained the process and difficulty of getting clothes, and pressed for the conversation to end. His tone slowed me down, his voice was soft and my feet stopped moving.

After he explained that his feet didn’t fit into his shoes, he pointed to his tent. We don’t give out tents just for people complaining about crowding in their tent, even though his size implied it was a real concern.

After he gave his name, he pointed to the area of the camp where a large white UNHCR tent had once been. It had been the best tent in the camp, but I don’t know why it disappeared. UNHCR didn’t give it to us; they weren’t involved in giving accommodation to refugees in Idomeni. We had bought it from someone else.

“I made that tent.”

“Cool.” I thought he meant he built it.

“Yes, I helped make it.”

“You made that tent? You designed it?”

“Yes, with UNHCR.”

I was astounded and impressed. I got a big grin on my face and pointed several times to the part of the camp where it had been. “You?” “Created it?” I said wow a couple times and he smiled.

“Where are you from?”

“Pakistan.”

It was a question I asked everybody, if they didn’t ask me first. But his nationality was his past. He came from a moment of pride to the memory of his land. It was a downhill road. I could see it in his face.

“I had to leave. For family issues.”

His face shrunk. His mouth closed. His chin quivered. He looked above and past me. I pressed no further. In these cases, it’s best to focus only on the present. Talk of the past is often gruesome. Talk of the future is dark.

“I will try to get you your tent. And I won’t forget.” I patted my heart and his shoulder. I looked him in the eye for the last time.

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