The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
“Dover Beach”, Mathew Arnold
Abeer came up to me with a wide smile and clasped her hands. She said she had news. We had become friends to the extent that she had singled me out in my not always frequent visits to the shelter. Early on she had been pleased two rooms in what might have been a basement of the once abandoned school building the Syrian and Afghan refugees had occupied, was now available to her. Three families who had been using the floors to sleep on had moved out. She was determined to turn the space into a classroom. When she told me this maybe a month ago, the aqua-blue walls with their patches of holes and chipped floors looked pretty dismal. She said she was going to cover them with paper and asked if I could find her some, adding she wanted the paper to be colorful “… if you have some paper for me with lots of color.” She repeated the desire for color when she asked for tacks, “colored pins,” she said, “lots and lots of them to put all over” she gestured, stressing that this would make her students better learners. She was very proud that the students had made a banner on their own with a strip of yellow crepe paper, something we had left behind from an activity. The banner read. “Learning is Fun”. She asked me to help her tape it to the wall. “If learning is not fun there is no learning!” she exclaimed. She said sometimes they were in the classroom till very late, sometimes past midnight.
Another time she asked for “thin paper” which I realized was Xerox paper. I brought her blank paper that wasn’t what she wanted and she repeated the need for “thin paper” so when I did bring her a packet of it she was clearly pleased. She also wanted to know if I could buy ink for the one printer that was in the building. Alicia was getting some donations and other volunteers were crowd sourcing. Sometimes the children and mothers would descend like birds when someone brought something, which was what happened with the flip-flops; people were still wearing closed shoes and it was getting hot. Once we started to bring a few pairs everyone wanted them. I was taken by the hand by one of the young girls and shown a sleeping parent (this was the case with two fathers) so I could see the foot size.
I would think the way we were all thinking that no matter how we felt these realities were extremities we were barely any part of, though Abeer had immediately assumed I would find ways to get her what she needed. And when I did, the list grew; she would ask how much the ink cost; when I said 26 euros she asked if I wanted money. I use the phrase “first world” too often, but I was learning what was not first world was not so much about the accouterments of comfort, though it’s clearly that too, but something to do with a relationship to time, what we do with time when we have it or don’t and how we measure the quality of it with a kind of patience. I really have no ability to imagine what happens when an entire life, let alone a city, is dismantled and have no idea how my own behavior might change but I saw what had been classrooms in the building where some 400 refugees were squatting turned into living spaces, where tents were set up in the rooms, and families living their lives there adjusted to what was offered, how they might or might not accommodate themselves. There were the ongoing necessities – food, water, etc. There was an outbreak of chickenpox, some of the children pointed to their spots and made gestures to show they were itching. A local pharmacy gave us powder for them.
In crisis, time shapes itself quite literally around inhabited physicalities – a body forced out of its home, a body at sea, on the run, shacked up where it finds shelter, becomes a part of its circumstance – once rain flooded the basement floor of the classroom Abeer was setting up, she treated it with as much concern as leaves blown into a room. “What happened!” I’d said one morning, as she was in conversation with another woman, she nodded, “We will bring the mop” and went back to her conversation. Another time I asked if it didn’t tire her that she did so much realizing as I spoke that there was something ridiculous about the question. She used the word “powerful” in a sentence that I don’t remember entirely. She meant she was keeping strong. Beyond the tasks at hand which had to do with her always very specific requests for the classroom – biscuits for the students she wanted to give as rewards, white board markers, colorful pins, a dictionary – we had not said much to one another. I only knew she was from Damascus, and had taught elementary school children there. I avoided questions more personal than someone’s name, where they were from, and if they had family with them. And then Abeer announced that she had her papers. It was then I learned she had two daughters, 18 and 20, and a husband who had made it to Germany.
“I have my ticket,” she said smiling with her hands clasped, “I bought it yesterday, a direct flight to Berlin.” She was very proud to have bought her ticket. I hugged her and she hugged me back. She told me that day she was going to “go to the market to buy gifts.” She has not seen her family in over a year. She has certainly witnessed tragedy. She had put a classroom together in the midst of this, and explained that she needed “to do something”, and couldn’t “only wait.” I offered to drive her to the airport which, like the requests for her classroom supplies, she accepted and let me know I was saving her “about 50 euros” because her bags were too heavy to walk with. I know when I drive her to the airport we will talk more and I will learn things about her life we had not had a chance to talk about and I’ll feel both the exhilaration of her survival and the melancholy of the losses that made it possible, that every time I go back to the shelter the classroom will remind me of the tenderness with which she shaped it out of what she found.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! …
…we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.