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Dragged by the outstretched hand of a mother with a swollen belly, her grip so unyielding it blocked the circulation. The constriction painted his tiny fingers a diverse palette. From above came voices in incomprehensible languages on which he eavesdropped. Yet he recognized only one, his mother’s. Sternly she gave him orders while she attempted to disguise her fatigue and fear.
Following this first encounter, I began a self-imposed mission to study the lone mother and her toddler son. In the tangerine clay, I gazed upon my own footprints, and I understood that I held the responsibility to follow in their steps. The story, their story, needed chronicling for those who live in the obscurity and security defined by distance.
The mother cloaked herself in standoffish insecurity. The grueling route north only contributed to her weary sentiment. Traveling alone, a pregnant woman with a small child, carried its own frightening consequences. There was also the possibility and fear of arrest and imprisonment for not carrying the proper documents. With the aid of an interpreter, we coaxed the woman to answer a few questions.
In a quiet corner, with an offering in sustenance, Mariam and I sat with the woman. I introduced myself and explained my intentions as the child seized a piece of bread. His mother scolded him, but I intervened and invited them both to eat. The two peered with untrusting eyes as I opened an examination into their lives.
“Thank you for sitting with me. What is your name? What is your little boy’s name?”
Mariam rattled off the questions and answers in a veritable duel between English and Tigrinya.
“My name is Faven. My son’s name is Tesfay.”
“Faven, you’re alone, with your son, and you’re also pregnant. Why are you making this trip?”
“I am from Eritrea. My husband has already fled, the poverty, the military. We had little, but now, without him, I have nothing.”
“Your husband is already in Europe?”
“He arrived in Europe and he sent us money. We have other family members who are also there.”
“What do you hope to find in Europe?”
“I want my children to have a better life. A better life than they would have here. I want to see them grow and to live. In Europe, they will find opportunity and life.”
“Are you frightened of making this voyage?”
She bowed her head and took a moment before answering, “I am not afraid. I cannot be afraid. Tesfay needs me not to be afraid.”
I remained transfixed in the moment. After posing a few more questions, I got up, brushed myself off, and thanked Faven. Although seemingly more at ease, distrust shone in her eyes. In one clenched fist, Tesfay held as much food as he could as I gave him a playful fist bumped to the other.
Mariam walked with me contributing bits of missing information, “this woman is coming from Eritrea. But we have migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees passing this point from all over, Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and the list continues. Political rhetoric has tied the hands of most humanitarian assistance. These people are looking to escape – disease, poverty, drought, and war.”
We traded more stories, and then Mariam hugged me and wished me luck. After meeting Faven I decided to travel north in their shadow, a want, a need, to see how they would manage to reach their destination.
Through his wide-open eyes, Tesfay, still grasping onto innocence, tried to understand the situation in which he had been thrown. Traveling through the day, and mostly with the cover of night, he didn’t cry. Hungry, thirsty, tired, dirty, regardless of the discomfort, he never shed a tear. In his short life of only five years, he had seen and experienced more than most of us would in two or three lifetimes. And already, even at this tender age, his emotions seem nearly depleted.
Like cattle, those able to pay the extortionist fees found themselves herded onto trucks. A cruel and damnable sun battered the desert. On his mother’s heels, Tesfay and his mother follow an unknown man. As I discovered later, Faven directed her son to sit in the corner of the filthy ramshackle tent as the man violated her. She closed her eyes and uttered no sound. Possibly not the first time that this woman, coming from neither wealth nor opportunity, had been victimized. Thoughts of Tesfay and her unborn child, liberating them from a destitute life, lend to Faven’s strength to persevere and to sometimes do the unthinkable.
Life failed to progress as the caravans, rolling ovens, moved north, the notion of time lost. Without enough food and water, only those being transported understood the suffering. No one complained. A few wouldn’t survive the hellish voyage. The smugglers had neither the time nor the patience to waste on the dead. They jettisoned those who died along the route, a treatment no different from rubbish.
For those who didn’t carry enough money or influence to see their travels to finality, they found themselves left behind to endure a life in limbo. Foreigners. Strangers. They endured the maltreatment, almost without question. What work one could find earned money that directly returned to the pockets of the business owner. The dream of leaving for these unfortunate individuals had ended, as they could neither continue nor could they return home.
Exchanged from one group of traffickers to another, those fleeing faced unspeakable treatment. As long as there was money, the voyage continued. When finally, at the coastline, I witnessed the child breathe again. A breeze born from the sea cleansed them of the grit and grime from weeks of travel. However, the trip was still far from over.
Along the beach where the ebbing waters meet the sand, men yelled at the new arrivals, and at each other. Disagreeing factions attempted, in a chaotic scene, to organize the passengers who now gathered to cross the sea for the promised land, Europe. When tempers flared too hot and too long, the discharge of rapid gunfire aided in dismissing the argument.
Faven, who has worn the same non-emotional expression this entire journey, pulled Tesfay into a line. Her eyes stared beyond the sea. The son gazed up at her unable to decipher whether fear, fatigue, or apprehension caused her glazed-over contemplation.
As one man maintained control over the group, another passed along the queue, randomly handing out raggedy life-jackets. The boy had not witnessed his mother’s force, not like this and not with anyone but him. But, she readied herself for a battle. With a raised voice, she tugged at a vest draped over the man’s forearm. After a quick assault of words, the man set free one of the life preservers. Holding on to her precious prize, she didn’t fully realize or imagine its necessity.
Waiting for the boat to arrive, the sun waned as one by one the exhausted travelers took a seat upon the damp sand. His eyes too heavy, the tot could no longer stay awake. Tesfay laid his head on his mother’s leg, comforted by her frail hands that rubbed his back and the radiating warmth from her pregnant belly.
The darkness of night consumed the land when the boat, no more than an inflatable raft, arrived. A crescent moon’s light cascaded over the not so sea-faring vessel. There was no other option, no Plan B, no other route to take. Faven slid her arms under her son, moved up onto her knees, and rose to her feet.
Commanding their human cargo, three or four armed men corralled and led them aboard the floating nightmare. Tesfay, now awake, remained attached to his mother. In every and any available space, the men pushed and crammed a person. Clutching the child with one hand and the life jacket in the other, Faven went where she was told.
Within minutes, those same men pushed the vessel from the beach. She covered her son’s head with her hand. Cradling him close to her bosom, the woman, over the heads of all those before her, fixed her vision on the distance that unfolded between her and her homeland.
The open sea, drenched in pitch black, invoked apprehension and fear. Some slept while others folded in agony by the constant rocking on the waves. Faven had mentioned that they would be lucky to find passage during the summer months. She had been privy to the horrific tales recounting the attempts to cross the Mediterranean during the winter when the sea was more ferocious and unforgiving.
Through the night, the engine, far too inadequate for its present job, coughed and grumbled. After witnessing the first rays from the sun, the noises ceased. Shattering the silence, the arguing voices of the men who piloted the vessel awakened and aroused the passengers.
Floating and bobbing aimlessly in the Mediterranean, the group found themselves without a radio, without enough life vests, and without food and water. Despair would not crush their spirit. They had always held onto hope. Someone would come; someone would help. After enough days on the open sea with no prospect of help, the migrants feared the worst. A controlled hysteria infiltrated the passengers and the crew.
From the horizon, a ship emerged. And then, another. During their daily fishing routines, ships from the nearby Italian islands arrived. The locals have long had experience dealing with the influx of dilapidated boats and rafts and their cargo of refugees. One ship’s captain signaled for additional assistance. Help sometimes would come; and, at times, it would not.
Four or five fishing trowels surrounded the distressed craft. A calm befell as the fishermen divvied the men, women, and children and transported them to the European continent. In return, the immigrants had only their gratitude to offer. Unbeknownst to these newcomers, a long and difficult road still lay ahead. Faven, with Tesfay in tow, would continue, hoping to reunite with her husband. If they had nothing else, they still held onto hope.