Can I Hug You?

I’m sitting at the beach. Three young boys swim in the sea. Can see Turkey from here, a cool breeze, the sound of water hitting rocks, two flags dancing. Life seems absolutely as it has been. Bald men smoke and drink coffee; women shop, the bustle of the high street. There are chain shops even here, on this tiny island in Greece. And yet, last night I drove to Vial and saw purgatory.

10km from the city center the government invalidates its own failure. Those who fled from persecution, war, and famine wait to be granted their human right to “seek and to enjoy other countries asylum” (Article 14) at Vial Detention Center. Currently, there are 1,600 people in a camp meant to hold 800. It was only meant to be a temporary processing center, but with 25.4 million refugees and 3.1 million asylum-seekers worldwide, and only 16,765 UNHCR staff to process them; it’s taking a bit more time than expected.

Until last night, I had only read about refugee camps. Until last night, Vial was a small picture on Instagram #humanrights. Now, it was real.

I cover my head with my sweater, and read The Trauma Cleaner listening to the boys’ laughter.

And then I hear footsteps, closer, laughter closer. Until a fragile voice says, “Hello.”

I stop reading and lift my sweater, “Hello.”

“Where are you from?”

“America.”

“Oh, AmeriKa.”

Where are you from?”

“Afghanistan.”

I feel an emotion that I can’t express – I want to hug him, I want to love him, I want to rescue him, but I do nothing.

“How old are you?”

“25.”

“Oh – what. You look younger. Baby face.”

“It’s better to look young, people are nicer to you. How old are you?”

He looks to his friends, and says, “16.”

I think about what would have to happen to a 16-year-old boy to make him leave everything he knows and everything he loves to be here.

I think about the War in Afghanistan and the Bring back our Troops and George Bush.

“Can I have your phone number?”

“Only if we are friends.”

“Fine, then we are friends.”

“No, friends aren’t easy like that. Come to the Youth Center. Do you like books?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t.”

“Why don’t you swim.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Why not.”

“Same as you don’t like books.”

He laughs. They laugh. I laugh. We laugh.

I cover my head with my sweater and continue reading and pretend everything is normal.

And then I hear, “Can I hug you?” and we hug, and all I’m thinking is – you belong, you belong, you belong.

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