A MAN in a refugee camp yesterday asked me for something to kick.
As he’d lived in a tent for more than eight months, I could forgive him some frustration.
But it turned out the refugee, one of thousands living in a ‘tent city’ on the Libyan border, was just hoping someone could help him practise Tae Kwan-Do.
Thursday, November 18, was my first day in a new job. I am working for an international charity, helping to publicise its work responding to natural disasters and other humanitarian emergencies.
As a result, it was also my first visit to a refugee camp.
It was shocking. Not in a ‘rooted to the spot, mouth wide open, unable to do anything’ sense, but gradual, creeping, and finally overwhelming only hours later, on the return to the office, where discussions centre on how to organise distributions of clothing, soap and other items necessary to survive life anywhere, let alone in a sea of tents in a desert region.
Approaching via roads along which traders offer to exchange Libyan for Tunisian dinar, camels stamp their way through spiny vegetation, and patches of yellow grow, until they overtake the few remaining splashes of green on either side of you, the camp looks impressive at first.
From a distance, white-looking canvas shimmers under shocking blue skies.
But proximity invites a more critical evaluation.
This is a desert, in which the sun relentlessly beats down on people who have, since March, lived in tents. (the irony of the fact that the one period in which the sun was replaced by a few days’ rain also happened to reveal many of the tents were holed would probably be lost on most of the refugees. Maybe more on that another time).
You may well ask, well what did I expect? It’s a fair point. And the answer’s not this. Well not completely this.
The point which underlies every moment in the camp is not the desperation of those living there, because most if not all those who remain have, as anyone must to survive, adapted to their shocking situations.
It’s that here, for all these people, life is on hold. And while that’s not a tragedy, or tragic, on the scale of war crimes, or the unthinking, unfeeling massacres doled out by natural occurrences, it’s mind-numbing.
Across the world, people have celebrated the toppling of either a vicious egotistical dictator or a man whose undeniable human rights abuses are slightly less dark because of his successes in agriculture, health, education and welfare. Again, it’s another argument, for another day.
The celebrants pause, perhaps, for a few seconds, to remember those who died helping to bring this about, and maybe also those who fell in the deluded desire to protect the regime in which they lived.
But who remembers those who, terrified by a war which was nothing to do with them, fled to save their own lives, and because they had earlier escaped often far worse regimes carrying false papers, or no papers at all, are now sitting in a desert, on hold for nearly nine months, waiting for a decision which will shape the rest of their lives?
Under the circumstances, a request for something to help a few refugees retain the Tae Kwan-Do skills they developed before their world dropped from before their eyes may seem a little trivial.
But as I walked past groups of youngsters being shepherded into makeshift schools, where refugees and aid workers teach them English, French, Arabic and IT, and queues of people of various African nationalities waiting for food, I realised it would stick with me.
Because this was a request from someone surrounded by tents and sand to be able to continue a part of his life from before, from outside.
In the end, and in its own small sense, it’s an act of heroism.
And there’s little else left, when the world simply stops.