Tarek lay sleeping next to his mama on the concrete sidewalk, with his head resting on a frayed backpack, in front of an ancient stone warehouse in the Turkish port city of Izmir. He and his mama arrived late that night with his uncle, aunt and two cousins. Tarek mumbles in his sleep kicking his feet. He rolls over and his foot lands on his cousin’s lower back.
“Tarek. Tarek. It’s OK. It’s a bad dream. You’re safe now,” his mama says stroking his short black hair.
“Ummi,” Tarek says taking hold of his mama’s hand with his trembling right hand, “It was the bombs again. I ran, but could not get away.”
Tarek is eight years old with a ruddy, dirty face. He is naturally thin, though not under nourished. He’s wearing a white shirt, black shorts and sandals. The bottom of his legs and his feet are covered with sand from the dusty ride across the Taurus Mountains the day before. His back and bottom are still sore from the bumpy truck ride that began three days ago in Gaziantep. His scarred, left arm hangs limp by his side.
It seems like forever since Tarek loaded up his backpack and left his home in Aleppo, Syria. The backpack holds everything Tarek owns and cherishes. There are two striped shirts, two pair of shorts and two pair of underwear. A picture of his papa in his soldier uniform. A pad of paper, two pencils and two apples. A prayer rug that belonged to his papa.
The sun rises over the tall glistening buildings of Izmir reflecting orange and yellow light off the windows offering the first glimpse of a new day. Tarek stands up and takes a deep breath and is overcome with the oily smell of fish and the sweet smell of fruit coming from crates and baskets lining the docks. He feels salt hitting his face, just like sand blowing off the desert. Tarek sees a crowd of people wrapped in red, yellow and blue blankets on the sidewalk huddled together in small groups. Some are stretching as they wake to the new day. Mamas are picking up their children.
He gets his first look at the docks. The water is lined with boats, both small and large, some with sails, some clean and shiny and others dirty with rust, slime and peeling paint. Men dressed in grey coats and hats scurry up and down the docks carrying boxes, nest and poles. In the distance he sees two very large white boats; bigger than any boat he had ever seen.
“Ummi. What are those big boats?” Tarek asks pointing out to sea.
His mama follows Tarek’s finger and spots the large boats. “They are called cruise ships. They bring visitors to Turkey from other countries like Greece and Italy.”
“Are we going on one of those boats to Greece?”
“No Tarek. Our boat will be much smaller.” his mama answers. Seeing the sadness on Tarek’s face she adds, “Our boat trip will be more of an adventure than going on a bigger boat.”
Tarek hears his uncle approach through the crowd and tell his mama, “Stay here with the others. I will check on the boat.”
“Are you sure we still want to do this. I heard the stories about France and Germany. Anas, I am scared. Maybe we should stay in Turkey.”
“There is nothing more for us here than in Syria. It will be safer in Greece.”
His mama hands Uncle Anas a package and his uncle disappears back into the waking crowd. Tarek and his mama move closer to the building and huddle with the other Syrians waiting for boats. Tarek chooses a spot where he can still see the docks and the sea. He watches the boats sail out to sea and disappear into the horizon. He sees a soldier in a green uniform carrying a gun walking down the street. He falls back into the crowd and grabs his mama’s abayah.
“It’s OK, Tarek. The soldier is not a bad soldier. He is a good soldier. He is here to help and protect us. This is a safe place.” mama said.
The soldier walks by without stopping or even looking their way.
About four hours later, Tarek’s uncle returns and says, “The boat leaves in two days and will pick us up on a beach about ten kilometers north of the city. We need to find a comfortable place to rest and get food.”
For Tarek two days is forever. He pulls his paper pad and pencil from his backpack and flips pages until he reaches a blank page. He writes about his trip on the truck from Gaziantep, the stories the adults told about Syria, before the war. He writes about the exciting city they are in, the tall buildings, the colorful awnings and doors. He writes about the boats and fish. Once or twice, maybe more, Tarek asks his mama how to spell a word. His mama tells him how proud she is that he practices his writing even when there is no school. Tarek smiles and writes about the good soldiers. Finished, he places the paper pad and pencils in the plastic bag his uncle gave him and put it into his backpack.
The day of the boat trip arrives and Tarek can’t wait to see their boat and start the adventure mama promised. Before leaving his mama changed from her abayah into black jeans, a grey print shirt and a black scarf. Tarek’s uncle leads the group on the ten kilometer hike to reach the boat that will take the group of forty-five Syrians to Greece. They walk two by two. Tarek holds his mama’s hand as they walk along the sidewalks that turn to dirt paths as they leave the city and approach the countryside. Other than scattered green bushes and a few small trees, there is only rock. The path turns toward the sea and comes to an end at a bluff. Below, white caps can be seen over the rough water and waves crash against the grey and black rocks that line the beach. Above, grey clouds can be seen in the distance.
Tarek’s uncle directs people to a path made of small and large rocks that lead down to the sea. Tarek cannot walk on the path. He crawls, climbs and is sometimes lifted over and around the rocks. It is hard work and it takes Tarek an hour to reach the beach. He climbs over the last rock that stands between him and the beach. Tarek stares out at the sea that seems to go on forever. Waves splash against the rocks and spray salt water on his face which he quickly spits out on the ground.
“Ummi, can I put my feet in the water?” Tarek asks.
“OK. Go with your cousins and stay close,”
Tarek takes off his sandals and walks into the water letting the waves flow through him. He runs and splashes his cousins. He turns to let the waves hit his back and sees his mama watching him. She has a big smile on her face. His uncle stands on a large rock looking out into the sea.
“The boat is coming,” his uncle shouts.
Tarek runs to his mama as the rest of the group gathers together on the beach. The roar of the engine of the black pontoon boat could be heard above the crashing waves. The boat rises and falls with each wave. Each wave brings it closer to the shore. As the boat gets closer, Tarek can see the captain. He is wearing a yellow coat and an orange life jacket. His long dark hair is blowing in the wind. The boat rides a wave onto the sandy beach and slides to a stop. The captain steps off the boat.
“We need to move quickly. The water is a little rough today. Life jackets are in the boat. Everyone needs to put one on,” the captain said.
“The boat is very small.” Tarek said.
“Yes it is,” his mama said, “get in and we’ll put our life jackets on.”
Tarek is the last to get on the boat. With everyone on board Tarek’s uncle asks for quiet.
“Fee Amaan Allah,” his uncle prays.
“In the protection of Allah,” everyone repeats.
Tarek’s uncle and two other men push the boat off the beach. The engine sputters once then starts to roar. The captain turns the boat toward the open sea. Everyone sits very close. Tarek could not even move his right arm. Tarek sits between his mama and his cousin on the side of the boat. His mama wraps her arms around Tarek to protect him from the constant splashing. Tarek’s wet shirt is sticking to his skin. The life jacket rubs on his neck. His backpack is soaked and seems to gain weight with every wave. He shivers from the cold.
As the boat moves further from shore the waves rise higher. Tarek bounces as each wave passes under the boat and the straps on his backpack dig into his shoulders. Another wave and he bounces even higher and his mama’s arms falls away. Another wave splashes over the boat and pushes Tarek over the edge of the boat with his backpack over the open sea. His mama reaches to grab Tarek, but it is too late, he falls into the water.
Tarek hears his mama’s scream over the roar of the engine and the waves. The engine stops. Tarek’s head is bobbing over the surface of the water and he is waving his right arm in the air. The sea water is burning his eyes and mouth. He yells. He kicks his legs frantically to stay above water and move back to the boat. He sees two men jump off the boat into the sea and swim toward him. He sees the captain throw a life preserver attached to a rope at the two men. One of the men grabs it and swims toward Tarek. Tarek is lying face up in the water when the first man reaches him. His eyes are closed. The second man swims up with the life preserver. Each holds Tarek with one arm with the other on the life preserver. The working together the men in the boat pull the rope.
Tarek is lifted up onto the boat and placed in his crying mama’s arms. Tarek coughs once, then again and again, spitting salt water from his mouth onto those around him. He is shaking uncontrollably. A women hands Tarek’s mama a blanket that she wraps around him. Tarek and his mama sit down in the center of the boat. Tarek’s uncle and several other men surround them. Everyone links arms and they sit as low as possible in the boat. The engine starts and the captain continues their voyage to Lesbos.
Four hours after the frightful rescue the rocky beaches of Lesbos are in sight. The captain turns the boat and heads for a beach nestled between two rock cliffs. As they near the beach several men jump off the boat, grab the ropes and pull the boat ashore. Once off the boat the captain tells the group Camp Moria is a short walk along a path between the cliffs. He returns to his boat and leaves the island.
On shore the group says a prayer to Allah for granting them passage to Lesbos and for saving the life of Tarek. Tarek’s uncle, carrying Tarek in his arms, leads the group along the path to Camp Moria. After walking half an hour the group is stopped by two men in green uniforms with guns.
“We come seeking asylum,” Tarek’s uncle said, “We have a boy that needs a doctor. Please, we ask for your help.”
Tarek’s mama, crying says, “I beg you. Help my son.”
The soldiers look at Tarek, his uncle and his mother. Waving their hands up and down the soldier’s motion the group to sit down. One of the soldiers talks into a radio while the other moves his eyes from person to person. Three other soldiers in blue uniforms join them along with a man and a woman dressed in white. The woman has on a white hat with a red cross on it; the man carries a bag. She looks at the ground listening to one of the soldiers. Two soldiers walk among the group looking at each person. The woman steps forward and begins speaking in Arabic.
“Where is the boy that needs a doctor?” she asks.
Tarek’s uncle stands holding Tarek and his backpack tightly in his arms. The woman motions them to come forward. The man carrying the bag comes up to Tarek and says something he cannot understand.
“He is a doctor,” the woman translates.
The doctor examines Tarek. He says something to a soldier and the women that Tarek cannot understand.
“The doctor says the boy has a mild case of hypothermia. He needs dry clothes, a warm blanket and a warm drink. A soldier will bring them soon,” the woman said.
Tarek sees more soldiers coming toward them. One is carrying a red blanket and cup. He hands them to Tarek’s uncle. One soldier stops to talk with the woman.
“Ladies and gentleman,” she says, “I realize you have journeyed a long way to get here. I don’t know what you heard about France and Germany, but things are bad in Europe right now. There is much fear among the people. You will not be allowed to stay. A few hours ago the European Union voted unanimously to close the borders until they can evaluate the situation. I am very sorry, but you cannot stay in Greece. There are boats in the bay ready to take you back to Turkey.”
“No,” Tarek’s uncle shouts, “We have come far. We have risked everything. We are families trying to escape the war. We are not terrorists. We come seeking asylum.”
“I am sorry, but there is nothing I can do. The order comes directly from the Greek President. You cannot stay,” the woman repeated.
“Ummi,” Tarek says, “What does she mean?”
“The bad Syrian soldiers attacked Europe and they won’t let us stay. The people in Europe are afraid of us.”
Tarek sees others standing and shaking their fists and pleading, “We can’t go back”, “Please let us stay,” and “Don’t blame us.”
Tarek looks at his mama. She is wiping tears from her eyes with her scarf. His mama walks up to the woman.
“If a Greek man murders a Turkish man, does that make all Greeks murderers?”
The soldiers move closer and remove the guns from their shoulders with the barrels pointing in the air. The voices fall silent.
“It’s not fair. We hate the bad soldiers too!” Tarek yells at the woman, “They killed my papa. They hurt me. We hate them too. I will show you.”
Tarek unzips the backpack his uncle is holding and reaches in. A soldier runs to Tarek and his uncle and pulls the bag away, but not before Tarek takes out the paper pad.
“Read. Read,” Tarek says handing the pad to the soldier, “We hate the bad soldiers.”
The soldier shakes his head, looks at the pad and shows it to Tarek. The pages are wet and the words smeared.
The soldiers push the group down the path to the bay.
“We hate the bad soldiers too,” Tarek cries.
Larry Fronk grew up in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains in Upstate New York, and now resides on the east side of Cincinnati, Ohio. Larry recently retired after a 36 year career of public service working in local government in the areas of urban planning, community development and local government management. Upon entering Act II of his life Larry decided to pursue his passion for writing and enrolled in a creative writing class at the University of Cincinnati, Clermont College. This is Larry’s first published work.