After a very long day cooking for over 300 people, I see a fight break out between two refugees. It was intense and people had to intervene to stop the fight. I later understood that this commotion was over a biscuit. Two grown men were fighting over a biscuit. Not because they were hungry, not because they haven’t had a biscuit, but, because ‘how dare he get one more biscuit than me!’
I was not prepared for this. I was prepared to see and feel a lot of things. Ingratitude and greed was something I wasn’t anticipating. It was difficult to digest. I had just spent almost 12 hours sitting on the floor in the heat, cutting vegetables with a blunt knife in order to feed these ungrateful people. I was losing hope in humanity. But by the end of my trip, after hearing what people had reallygone through, I was beginning to understand the attitude that would lead one to fight over something as small as a biscuit.
People had fled their homes with their family to avoid death. They crossed borders to find themselves imprisoned in locations where human rights existed as a dream. After being wrongly imprisoned some people had escaped, through any means necessary to jump on an overcrowded, expensive and dangerous boat, which almost, always sank.
Fed faux fantasies, these refugees are then faced with the reality of a camp that can only be described as a prison. Military men with guns patrol the camps and treat people like they are criminals. The camp is nothing more than a plot of land with a lot of run-down looking nylon tents surrounded by large walls and barriers around the border of the camp. There are no heaters for the winter and no coolers for the summer, commonly leading to death due to pneumonia and heat stroke. Breakfast, lunch and dinner can be nothing more than white rice. They were lucky to get salt.
These people were treated less than human. Most came from a place where they lived a civilized life and war had torn that away from them. They lost their homes, been tortured, raped, family members murdered, have lived in a tent with no privacy in complete limbo. They are and feel dehumanized, dependent on the kindness of others in a country where they are seen as a virus. I’d be angry and fed-up. I’d want to be treated like a human. I would just want one more damn biscuit. And I’d probably fight for it too.
Many of the people I met were friendly. It was rare to come across anyone who avoided talking to me or even ignored me. This is why I was taken aback when I met Ameena, a young woman, who without failure had a full face of make-up on every day.
Ameena never took part in conversations, rarely acknowledged me, let alone spoke to me. This was despite the fact that I’d grown closer to her family and friends, as many of them also volunteered as a way to keep busy and help out. After many hard days of work and throwing a successful Eid party, I went out to play billiard with a handful of volunteers, one of which was Ameena. As I am terrible at any kind of sport, including billiard, I assumed a spectator role in the games, as did Ameena. This was the point that Ameena and I had an authentic moment. After speaking about generic topics, she opened up and told me her story.
I’d judged Ameena and thought that she was only interested in wearing make-up for vain reasons, unlike most women in the camps who were there fighting to survive. I assumed that she thought too highly of herself to interact with me. But I wasn’t prepared for the reality.
In Syria, where Ameena is from, ISIS were very strict about women wearing a niqab (a garment of clothing that covers the face). They were also very strict about women wearing make-up. It was completely banned. Women were expected to cover their faces when they were out and ISIS would conduct spot checks to ensure that women were not wearing make-up under their niqabs. So, not only were they required to cover their face, they weren’t allowed to wear make-up under the niqab otherwise there would be serious consequences.
Ameena also told me that ISIS were constantly trying to recruit people in Syria to join their army. Ameena, who rarely looked me in the eyes and was very softly spoken, almost delicate, was once engaged to a man who refused to join ISIS after they attempted to recruit him several times.
A day before Ameena’s wedding, ISIS came knocking at her home to recruit the men of the family. When the men refused, ISIS killed them. Ameena lost her fiancé and uncle that day. They were beheaded outside her home right in front of her. Ameena didn’t speak for four months and rarely speaks now. I was not prepared for this.