We’ve all seen the images on TV, people desperately trying to cross seas and oceans in rubber boats. In the summer of 2016 I felt compelled to help as if someone was pulling me by the hand, drawing me out of the safety of my life in London. So, I found myself working at a UNICEF-supported refugee centre for women and children in central Athens. The experience of being there for people, during the most horrific circumstances of their lives, opened my eyes, moving me to tears and emotional exhaustion. Every day, new arrivals flooded into Greece – families, lost and afraid, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan. Many had not eaten for days; the children were desperate and traumatised. I will never forget the haunted look in their eyes.
It is an eye-opening experience to see children in these situations, to feel their arms around you when they are afraid, and equally when they learn to trust you. “I love you,” one of the little girls said to me. She had asked someone how to say it in Greek so that she could speak to me in a language that I could understand. I cried that night, more than I’ve cried for years. I couldn’t compute what was happening in the world, how these children and families were carrying the weight of it. Love was their way out of the darkness, so clearly seen in the way women bonded at the centre, how they built friendships, how they laughed and cried together, how they shared photographs of the homes and people they had lost.
It reminded me of my own family. My parents came to London as refugees during the invasion of Cyprus in 1974 – they had lost their homes and everything they had ever known. Growing up, I could feel the war in my parent’s hearts. From an early age I learned about the devastation and loss that war can bring.
I returned to the UK – I lecture in creative writing at a university in London. But even while I was teaching, I could not get these children out of my mind. So I returned to Greece the following year, where the drop-in centre had become an activity centre. Women and children were learning Greek, English and German, they were painting and sewing, making jewellery, having therapy and receiving help and information about their rights as refugees. The little girl who had said “I love you,” spoke Greek better than I could. I saw clearly the strength of the human spirit, the way we can grow and develop even at the worst of times. I was propelled to write my book, an accumulation of these experiences and stories.
Although we cannot change what happened, we can try to create a space for people, in our hearts, in our minds, in our lives, in the country in which we live, because this space can give people a future.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri, Zaffre, €18.20, is out now.
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