The refugee camps were hell on Earth. The media only came to report on the conditions when there was an uptick in the violence or disease spread through the camp. Violence brought reporters, disease brought doctors. A team of well-meaning doctors would come in, but only those lucky enough to come down with cholera or malaria were given food or medicine. One could only pray the disease would affect them so they could know comfort being fed, and then pray for death.
There was nowhere to go. Their homes were destroyed, and crossing the border that lay just beyond the edge of the camp was unattainable. The adults rarely talked about what they had before the war, and children who had been born as refugees sat listening in wonderment about things like carpeting, telephones, and refrigerators. Lives had been shattered like mortars hitting buildings. Schemes, plans or dreams everyone had one, it was their way out. For most of them, it would only ever be a mental escape, not a true exodus. Officially, they were simply called, IDPs, Internally Displaced People. It was a fancy name for those who were simply stuck.
Amir hated life most days. He watched as the world around him moved with the same desperate pace. He had ended up here the same way anyone does, fleeing his home with only his wife and children, and whatever could be carried. The bombs had been too close, the rebels were too common, and he believed this was the best choice he could make if he wanted to live.
Fatima, pregnant with their third child, walked the whole way without complaint. Their plan had been to cross the border to the north, but they stood shocked and speechless upon reaching the camp where ten of thousand of others found themselves unable to cross. Fatima’s body sensed the impossible situation, and let go of any hope it had held, including the child that would never be born.
Time would make the life in the camp seem almost normal. And over time they became used to the lives they had never planned to live. Cooking over an open fire, sweeping the dirt floor, and emptying their waste from a bucket into a small ditch on the far eastern side of the camp. It was never how they imagined their young, beautiful lives turning out, but civil war had changed everything.
Amir learned that while the border was closed that there were certain guards who could be bribed. This was common knowledge amongst the camp, but the money was impossible to come by even for those who had been the upper crust of society. The kind of people who had always looked down on Amir, the same people Fatima had once called family.
His mind drifted back to Fatima as a young bride dressed in her wedding finery with her jewelry weighing heavy on her arms. The many bracelets and necklaces were her dowry, even then a subtle reminder from her family that she was too good for Amir. He was a mechanic, and she was the daughter of an affluent government official. It was only the fact that she was the fourth daughter that allowed her to marry for love rather than having a strategic match made for her. If her father could see her now, he would have the opportunity he had always waited for; to tell her she was a fool, and love would leave her with nothing.
Amir wondered during the rush of leaving, rather fleeing, if Fatima had packed her wedding jewelry. It might be worth just enough to buy their passage across the border. He did not dare wake her as neither her mind nor her body was strong enough at the moment to be asked about selling her jewelry. Amir sat with his two young children outside the tent drawing in the dirt with sticks. He looked at their young faces, they were blissfully unaware of the fear Amir had for all of them. He had to find a way out.
“What great plan do you have now?” Fatima asked in a mocking voice.
Time had made her bitter against him. She would never forgive him for selling her jewelry or for allowing them to be in this situation. Fatima blamed him for the war itself.
Amir went to speak, but then closed his mouth before sound escaped. He did have a plan and this one would work this time. His last plan had been to buy and sell food, but that turned out to be failure because Amir couldn’t resist the stories of families like his, and always agreed to accept payment later. Later never came, and Amir found himself worse off than when he had started. The plan before that had been to teach young men to be mechanics, but the lack of vehicles quickly made it apparent that this plan wouldn’t work. All his schemes and plans had failed. Amir had failed, and Fatima reminded him of that.
“The plan is to wash newspapers of their ink and sell the paper.” He said quickly as if that would make it harder to ridicule.
“What?” Fatima scoffed.
“Well, if I take the old newspapers and wash them in the water before it is boiled, the ink comes off. Then it can be used for anything.” His eyes lit up as he continued, speaking faster. “Just think kids can do school work, people can write letters or books or anything.”
“Oh yes, I can see it. People will write to tell their family to come visit the camp,” She said sarcastically, “and just where will you get these newspapers?”
“The sheiks will give them to me,” Amir said confidently.
The sheiks were the wealthy families who collectively gathered on the western border of the camp. This meant that they were never located in the direct path of the wind and didn’t have to smell the filth They had fled their homes with pockets of money and valuables to sell, and seemed to treat living in a refugee camp as an extended holiday. It never made sense to Amir why they hadn’t crossed into Turkey. Yet, many of them had been former government officials that were now branded war criminals, so while the camps were hell, it was better to be a rich IDP than a captured foreign criminal.
“And they are just going to give the newspapers to you?” Fatima’s eyebrow raised.
“I agreed to do some work for them and they would give me their old newspapers.”
“What kind of work?”
Amir could not bear to tell her that in exchange for the newspapers, he would carry the Shieks buckets of waste to the ditch on the opposite side of the camp. The far eastern edge was roughly two miles, so Amir spent his mornings walking back and forth carrying buckets filled with human feces. It took Amir several trips, so he walked as fast as he could to try to finish before the hottest part of the day.
Soon Amir was in business, he had collected enough paper to rewrite the Koran. Stripping the newspapers of their ink was a slow backbreaking process. After collecting the papers from the Sheiks, he took them home and separated each piece. Laying them in neat stacks on the floor.
“Like this daddy?” His four old daughter, Layan asked. She was so eager and excited to help separate the newspapers.
“Yes, like that Habibi.”
Once all of the pieces were separated, he would walk to get water from the well that everyone acknowledged was far too shallow, and therefore needed to be boiled before any use. But it had been by accident that Amir learned that eerily enough something about the water before it was boiled was enough to strip paper of its ink.
Amir washed and precisely hung each piece to dry, if he moved too quickly pulling the paper out of the water it would tear, so the process was time-consuming. He also learned that the line Fatima hung washing on would not work, the string ripped the paper from the weight of it being wet. Amir built a special rack to dry the paper, and then another to keep up with the pace of his new endeavor.
At first, the novelty of paper in the camp meant his business was thriving. It seemed for a moment that Amir’s business would be lucrative until people realized the letters they wished to send to their family wouldn’t ever make it. There was no postal system inside the camp, the one outside the camp was destroyed like the rest of the country and even if they could buy over priced stamps on the black market, there was no guarantee that their family hadn’t fled or died. It was a futile effort to try to send for help. People bought the paper, wrote their letters and then stuffed them in lining of pillows or under a stack of clothing, hiding it like it was their most valuable possession. While it was apparent that they could never send their letter, it hurt too much to burn it or throw it away.
Once the novelty wore off business slowed, and Amir had more paper than he knew what to do with. He let his young children draw but even that grew tiresome. Amir was defeated. Life had won. There was no hope left to be had.
Amir picked up a piece of paper from one of the many stacks that crowded his small tent. He held his pen over it, contemplating what to draw or write. If he knew what was good for him, he would write a suicide letter he thought to himself. Was that the cowardice thing to do? Would Fatima even bother to mourn?
To my beloved Fatima,
I’m sorry I failed you and the children. I never knew our lives would be like this, I would have never married you knowing …
Amir paused and thought to himself that it wasn’t true. He would have married her a million times over even if he had known. He smiled.
Yet, the first time I saw you I knew I loved you. You came in the shop with your father. He had been teaching you to drive and you were so upset that you hit a cat that you swerved and hit a light pole. Your blue eyes were red from tears, and you kept biting your bottom lip to stop more tears from coming. I smiled at you and you smiled back. There is nothing as beautiful as a woman who smiles through her tears. Our children must know that there is beauty in this world. We must show them. So this is the first letter I will write to them, to tell them of the beauty of their mother, and smiles through tears.
I will never consider you a mistake, you and the children are the greatest thing I have ever done.
Amir folded the letter; leaving it next to the pot he knew Fatima would use to cook dinner. He walked to the Sheiks, he was sure that there would be more newspapers and he would need all of it to write the story he wanted to tell his children.
Fatima picked up the letter, quickly scanning over it. She had heard of many men who left their families behind in the camp. Either they crossed the border alone in the night or simply disappeared into a mental haze of drugs. They had remained present in form but gone psychologically. She smiled as she read that Amir remembered the day they met. She laughed out loud thinking about the cat she tried unsuccessfully to avoid, the dented Mercedes, and violent red color her father had turned. It occurred to her that she couldn’t remember the last time she laughed. She quickly shrugged it off, she had things to do and children to feed. Who could afford to stand around laughing?
When Amir returned she smiled at him, but the moment she realized she was smiling at him, she quickly turned it into a scornful look.
“So now you are going to be a writer? Do tell what you have written? Wait, wait tell me the last book you read? Do you even know how to read?” Fatima didn’t know why she mocked him so badly. She wanted to be a good wife and encourage him, but mocking words were all that crossed her lips. Fatima wanted to be the girl in the mechanic shop, who fell in love with the boy. She wanted to be herself, before the war had hardened her, but she didn’t know how to go back.
“Yes, I am going to be a writer.” Amir replied.