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By Russell Berg (he/him), teacher, Nanaimo

Amira¹ ran to me across the floor of the bustling tent. Her squeal cut through the buzz of Pashto and Arabic and her three-year-old curls bounced on her cheek. She wanted to show me her jeans. They were clearly second hand, with pink and orange animal patches sewn all over them, and she was intent on showing me each one. We sat on the floor of the UNHCR tent on the island of Lesvos in Greece. She exclaimed something in Urdu at each animal and I made the sound of each animal as she did. We smiled and laughed together.

I had last seen Amira the night before, and she wasn’t laughing then; she was crying, and shivering, and there had been a look of desperate fear filling her eyes. I was driving a rescue boat and our crew was working desperately to get Amira and her family off a cliff face in the dark hours of the morning, with the wind breaking the waves into frothy whiteness. It took two hours to get Amira and the rest of the people travelling with her off that rock. All of these people had run from the bombs and the bullets of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and, in a storm, had washed up on the shore of Lesvos, Greece. Amira and her mother were the first ones on the boat, and when her mother sat down just opposite where I was driving, Amira clamped her arms around my leg and held on for the next two hours.

We got up off the floor of the tent and I noticed that Amira’s pants were too big; she kept pulling them up. The volunteers distributing dry clothes at the transition camp do their best, but not everything fits. I asked Amira’s father, who spoke some English, if it was okay for me to take her to get a belt. He nodded okay and I took her back to the distribution tent. We knelt on the floor to rummage through the tattered cardboard box of belts together. At the bottom of the box of donated belts was a pink and orange belt that matched the patches on her pants perfectly. Amira’s mouth made a large “O” of delighted surprise. It was far too big for her, so I wrapped it around her waist twice and we went back to find her family.

We sat down to talk some more, and it turned out that Amira’s father had learned to speak a little English from his brother who had been an interpreter for the German army in Afghanistan. The Taliban had decided that because her uncle had done this job, Amira and all of her family must die; and so her family had run for their lives and she found herself on Lesvos in need of a belt.

The first year that I came home from Greece I had a recurring nightmare. In the dream I was driving a dinghy full of refugees. It was not much more than a raft with a motor, and there were so many people on board that I couldn’t see over them. I was straining and stretching to see so that I could find the safe water but there were rocks all around. I looked down and saw the waves, but the waves weren’t made of water, they were made of people. I was driving the boat through a sea of refugees who didn’t make it. There was no splash of water, just fingers and the soft cries of those we didn’t save.

Re-entry is difficult. When I am not doing search and rescue work in the waters around Lesvos or Vancouver Island, I am a high school teacher in Nanaimo at John Barsby Community School. In many ways the re-entry was more difficult than the sometimes very difficult work we were doing in the waters between Turkey and Greece. The sense-making work that happened in my head was sometimes so fruitless in a place so privileged as Canada. I was searching for the reasons that I get to live my life versus the reasons that Amira lives the life she does, and I couldn’t find even one that made sense. There was, however, one thing that made it somewhat easier to accept. I teach English to former refugees who have found a safe home in Canada. The tension that I felt in leaving the refugees behind in Greece was resolved in some ways by the fact that I was helping people here at home. I began to understand that I wasn’t abandoning the work with refugees: I was continuing it on the other end of their journey.

Then the pandemic hit and the consistent, dynamic, daily contact that I had with my students was flattened into a two-inch window on my screen. In normal times teaching a student to learn another language is not limited to a seventy-five-minute class. It is conversations in the hallway, it is lunches in my classroom to work on homework, it is visits to their other classes to help them understand that subject. Teaching a student to learn English involves the full range of gesture, expression, movement, tone of voice, and the shape of my mouth, lips, and tongue. It did not translate successfully to that little screen, and both my students and I struggled. When they came back to the classroom in September of 2020, it felt like the chains that had been weighing down our communication had been lifted. This group of students had been in Canada for a while and many were ready to fly. They worked so hard and achieved great success in this incredible task of navigating a new language and culture.

There was, however, one very large blank spot in the middle of the white board of our re-entry plan. Because of border closures prompted by the pandemic, for the first time in five years we did not have any brand new refugee students coming to our school. The beginner class was empty. I know there is a desperate need, for I left thousands upon thousands of refugee children behind in Turkey, Jordan, and Greece. Children who do not have access to school, a decent meal, or a safe place to live. For all of those children there is no re-entry, no “return to normal.” Their normal is a refugee camp where they line up for three hours for food, where they face criminally inadequate water and sanitation services, where the asylum claim process is byzantine at best and a soul-crushing destroyer of hope at worst.

I keep a picture of Amira on my desk at school. She is sitting in the dirt outside the tent that her parents made from scavenged tarps and blankets, and she is smiling at me. I can just see the pink and orange belt. I have lost touch with the family, but she should be starting school this year; given the circumstances on Lesvos, I doubt very much that is happening. Whatever issues I may be having with re-entry, this girl will face a much harder journey. Be well, Amira.

¹ Name has been changed to protect the family.

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