Eyes Wide Open

New Zealand

Hi, I'm Ella. Just a seventeen-year-old girl trying to make sense of the world through words.

Message to Readers

This piece is from the perspective of a young Syrian girl experiencing life in a Refugee camp. I wrote it in 2018 for an English internal, and somehow keep coming back to it. It has been quite thoroughly edited, but I thought I may as well put it out there for someone to read & think about. Enjoy.


February 1, 2019


I wake to the shivering walls of the tent, condensation from my breath making pretty beads on the canvas. I can hear Mama breathing beside me - Papa is gone, he woke before the sun to get in line for food. I wonder what he will sell to pay for it today. I roll over, feeling the empty pangs in my stomach and wanting to wake Mama for breakfast. Mama’s dark hair falls across the ground like the ink I used to paint with in school. She holds my little brother Balal close to her chest, our only blanket draped across her shoulders. Mama is beautiful - Papa used to say so all the time when we were in Aleppo, back when she used to smile. Now there are lines on her forehead and grey streaks in her hair. She looks sad even when she is asleep.

I stand up, my head brushing the roof of the tent as I tiptoe around Mama. Condensation from the roof drips down my neck in uncomfortable trails, but I ignore it. We don’t have any towels to dry off with anyway - we had to leave those at home. Or at least, where home used to be. I try to imagine the droplets as pearls, strung together on a delicate string and clasped at the back with a silver clip. Just like Mama used to have. As I crouch in the dirt to light a fire, I remember mama’s shiny new oven she got for her birthday at our house. As I carefully tip our precious water into our single pot, I remember how the water used to gush freely out of a shiny silver tap. As I carefully stir the rice in the boiling water, I remember the grand home cooked dinners mama used to prepare - great steaming mountains of spicy lamb and green beans; dishes that smelled like the mint and basil we grew in our little window garden. The beaming smile on Mama’s face as she set down a dish of omm ali - our favourite dessert. I remember how my brothers would cheer and scoff the pudding down as fast as it would go. I preferred to eat slowly, and sometimes I would leave food in the bowl if I wasn’t hungry anymore. I look down at the tiny amount of rice in front of me, my eyes watering from more than just woodsmoke. What I would give to have just that little bit of left-over pudding now. What wouldn’t I give.

The sounds of the camp start to drift in through the thin walls of the tent. Distant shouts and wails start up, along with the low hum of voices. This is the only music we listen to now; the sounds of our own misery. My little brother wakes up and starts to squirm in mama’s arms as he smells the food. She wakes with a start, but droops like a wilting flower when she remembers where she is. She doesn’t speak as she stands up to grab the bowls for breakfast. I don’t speak much either. I think my words drowned along with my brother, deep in the mediterranean sea.

We eat in silence; the only sound comes from my plastic spoon scraping the bottom of my bowl. Balal whimpers quietly. He is still hungry, and all the rice is gone. Mama feeds him tiny spoonfuls from her own bowl - she hardly seems to eat now anyway. Her cheekbones are as sharp as cut glass, the skin below her eyes blooming with ugly bruises. She looks…Empty. Like the dark waves that took my brother stole something from her as well. Guilt and shame washes over me; I remember how she held onto me when the boat sank, not him. My father held Balal as my older brother drowned alone. Mama couldn’t hold both of us afloat, and she knew Talal was a better swimmer than I was. She chose me...sometimes I wonder if she regrets her choice.

Balal is squirming once more, and so I uncross my legs and stand up. “Mama, let me take Balal to play outside.” I say quietly. She doesn’t respond. I lean over and pick up a struggling Balal from her limp arms, and rest him on my hip. He feels heavy in my skinny arms, but I know that he is far too small for his age. I leave Mama staring blankly at the ground and push up the tent flap to go outside. The sunlight burns my eyes as I step out into the narrow street. Makeshift houses made of everything from old garments to concrete blocks sit in orderly rows, stretching off far into the distance. Sand and dust cover everything in a thick, greyish blanket. The world is colourless - even your skin turns grey if you wait here long enough. Sometimes I look into mama’s old compact — the one she keeps even though the makeup inside is long gone — and wonder when I too will become like the rest of them. Grey. Empty. Dead-eyed.

Balal pulls at my hair and I lower him to the ground gently. He holds my hand as we walk, swinging our joined arms happily. I wish I could have his peace - the only thing I can think about as we walk the never-ending streets is how my friend Berta’s mother was attacked last week when she was bringing food home to her family. How Saya’s Papa went off to work one morning and never came back. How Yana’s older sister was found crying on the street corner after dark. I saw her when she was found - She was curled into a ball on the muddy ground and her clothes were all rumpled up. When I asked mama about it, she closed her eyes, and her lips went all tight. She refused to tell me why she was so upset. Now, even though the sun is shining brightly in the sky, I make sure we keep to the main roads. Away from the shadows lurking in the dark alleyways.

Balal scuffs his shoes in the dirt as he walks, and I know that Mama would be angry if she knew. “You’re putting holes in them!” She would say. We can’t afford to buy him any more shoes; we can barely afford to feed ourselves. But I can’t find it in my heart to scold him. I can’t bear to take what little joy he has left in this place away. So I let him scuff his shoes happily, and we watch the dust billow into the air in great, grey clouds. We walk and we walk - I’m not sure where we are going. There is nowhere to go. Nothing to do here except wait and hope. I’m not sure I have hope anymore. I did once - back before the relief workers at the camp began leaving. Before fewer food trucks drove through the pass in the mountains. Before the crossing. Back when Talal was still with us, still breathing. I would give anything to have him back, to hear him nag me about doing the dishes, to run my hands through his messy hair. To hug him and hear him tell me everything will be alright. Maybe that is a selfish wish - I know he would hate it here, hate waiting for something to happen, for someone to help us. It’s selfish because I killed him. I killed him. Sometimes I wish I had just drowned in that ocean. Taken Talal’s place deep beneath the water. Would it hurt to die? I want to live, but not like this. Not like this.

The sun moves sluggishly across the sky, its heat beating down like burning fists on my back. Balal begins to whine - it’s too hot for him out here. But I can’t bring myself to go back. To find my mother staring at the blank walls of our tent. To look into her dead eyes as I wait for Papa to come home with the food. To sit there and pretend like everything is okay, like we are going to get out of here. Anything is better than that. So I drop Balal at the door of our tent and walk away. I walk until my legs are screaming and my clothes are soaked with sweat. Past the grey skinned, grey souled people sitting in gutters, kids kicking a half-deflated ball through dusty streets. I walk to the very edge of the camp, where the houses stop and the desert truly begins. I sit on the rocky ground and watch the sun bleeding over the mountains, it’s fire bathing the peaks in crimson light. It looks like hellfire, sent down by God to burn us, to wipe us out like an ugly stain. To destroy the bits of humanity that nobody wanted. Maybe this is hell. Maybe we are all dead and this is our punishment; to rot in the desert while the world looks on. My eyes burn with unshed tears - from anger at being left out here to die? From grief? From sadness? I don’t know anymore, But I blink them back; water here is too precious to be wasted on tears.


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  • February 1, 2019 - 4:37am (Now Viewing)

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1 Comment
  • Charlotte._

    Such an amazing piece, even though I first read it ages ago, it still makes me feel so sad for her and her family and all the refugees.

    almost 2 years ago