The refugee hitchhiker who haunts me

She stood by the Katara exit kiosk with two boys by her side.

I slowed down to a stop, expecting her to cross the road. But she walked up to the car and in Arabic interspersed with a few English words asked me to drop her in Dafna.

How dangerous could it be? A well-dressed hitchhiker of about 40, with 2 young boys in tow. Yes, it was close to midnight, but this is Doha, after all.

When I offered to help find a taxi, she insisted politely (almost a plea) that I drop her home. It was not too far away from Katara… The boys were hanging behind, obviously uncomfortable.

So there they were in the car, one second discussing the amazing Cinema Paradiso we had all seen at the last screening of Doha Tribeca that night, and the next second we were discussing the war in Syria.

The mother with her two sons and two daughters fled to Doha from Damascus. The daughters stayed with their aunt (her sister), while she lived in a single rented room with her sons. No job in sight, and unable to afford to send the kids to school. Four months in Qatar, having lost all that was familiar and comfortable.

She had left behind a 20-year-old career as a French teacher, her husband, friends, her home. Now in Qatar, she is not quite sure whether she was at the threshold of greater tumult or little hope.

In that moment she was as lost as a person could possibly be. She doesn’t quite remember the route back home to her room. Mohammed, the younger one who could not have been over 10 seems to have an inkling. He guides me through the lefts and rights of Dafna. He is chatty.

Ahmed, the older boy — around 12-13 — is stoic. I can’t make out if he is unhappy about his mother talking to a stranger about her worries and fears; or if he was just unhappy. It’s him that I worry about most.

To take a healthy, bright teen out of school and to a strange country… How do you keep him happy and positive? What kind of courage and desperation did it take for that mother to make this move?

We finally find our way to their home. We are by now on first name basis. K writes her name, number, email id and Facebook user name on a piece of paper. She takes down my details. She believes I could be one of the people who’d help her find a job here.

Her sons are listening. Maybe they are buying some of that belief too.

I feel crushed by the truth of the matter — I can’t do much but I can’t tell her that.

Three days after the encounter, I am still haunted by the eagerness in her smile, the determination in her voice, the sadness in her eyes and by Ahmed’s unsmiling face.

This is what war does. It splits families. It crushes dreams. It makes warriors of mothers and children.

 

PS: If you know of a job she can apply for please contact me.

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The Goalie. (A Short Story)

Fahad placed the flag between his science and maths text books and sat on it. If it remained folded it would tear soon, and they had just a few of these left. He smiled at the thought of how annoyed his science teacher would be to see his book being used as a butt-rest.

 

Fadi, his 6-year-old brother, sat down beside him. “Will you let me play tomorrow at least,” he whined.

 

“Yes, yes. You are on guard now. That’s how you train to be a goalie.”

 

Fadi was not convinced, but repeated the colours aloud. He can’t afford to make a mistake. He almost did this morning. “Black and Red. Green and Black. Black and Red. Green and Black.”

 

They heard a distant thud, and ducked under the bed.

 

“Switch off the lights and go to sleep,” mami called from the kitchen.

 

Next morning, the brothers hurried through a breakfast of dry bread and red tea, and ran out of home. They kept close to the compound walls, as they walked to the open ground near the school, where they were to meet their friends.

 

Twelve boys and one girl–Yousuf’s little sister, Amna.

 

The older boys huddle around Fadi and Amna. Fahad and two other boys remove pieces of paper tucked into their belts, under theirs shirts.

 

The oldest of the group, 12-year-old Ahmed whispers. “You remember? Don’t mix it up. And smile.”

Everyone deferred to Ahmed, he was the owner of the ball.

 

“If I guard well, tomorrow I will play with them,” Fadi boasted to Amna. She couldn’t care less. She just wanted to get out of home, and escape her grandmother’s wailing.

 

The two are lost in a game of stones and sticks they’ve deviced. They hear a rumble and a shadow falls over them. Amna, quicker of the two, pulls out the black and red flag and waves it at the men. She is not afraid of them. She is not afraid of much, except boredom.

 

The boys pause play, and wait for the men to move out of the ground.

 

As soon as the men were out of sight, they start kicking again. Today was a fairly peaceful day. Yesterday, there were so many interruptions, and Fadi almost messed up.

 

After nearly an hour, a different set of men patrol the area.

 

“I know which one, let me do it please,” Fadi begged.

 

With a sigh, Amna stepped aside. Fadi carefully took out the green and black one and waved it. He got it right, and tomorrow he will be with the boys, and Amna can play with her silly sticks, he thought to himself.

 

The distant thuds were drawing closer… it was time to run back home. As they secreted the flags and ran in different directions, to different hoods. Ahmed shouted out after the scattered group, “Same time tomorrow.”

 

Fadi ran behind Fahad and grabbed his hand. “Can I play with you then?”

 

 

PS: Story seed courtesy, RGM (the mudhir).