Children at the Assyrian refugee Camp in Ainkawa, Erbil, Iraq. PHOTO KRISTIAN SKEIE

Do not love a refugee. His pockets will be cramped, full with the keys of all his journey’s houses; there will be no room for candy hearts or rings.

His face will be lined with red, black. You will not know it until you have acquired the dispassionate mastery of maps.

What you will think is his laugh will be the echo of the shells in his voice, a gripping of his throat. What you will think is his brooding temper, and find attractive, will be the passionate fear of the moment after a sniper’s bullet misses its target, or the suspicion and wisdom before he runs into the next gunman’s path.

How can you love him if he stutters and stumbles every time he tries to talk to you? He cannot repeat the grandmothers’ songs he has kept in the back of what is left of his heart. He cannot explain why his skin is blotched as it is, nor his clenched scars, the welts that will no longer bear any caressing touch. His eyes will be darkened, not by sleepless nights waiting for his lover — their blackness is pure extinction.

Do not ask him for an explanation. If you ask him to speak, you will push him back into the spirals of slaughter.

The legends he used to know of his country and its heroes have turned to nightmares screened every night before him. Do you believe that any survivor of war could tell him “have happy dreams again”?

You will see no life in his face until he receives his residency papers. How can you understand his obsession with those papers? How can they or you realise the simple difference between a “thing” and “one with rights”?

One thing you must know — nothing you can do will ease the disappointment from that same living face while his papers are granted for one year alone.

Do not love a refugee. You will not be able to cut down the barriers between you. All he knows is Borders Closed. Whatever opens between you will be lost in generations of exile.

On the road he ran from the police and from the border guards until he could no longer run, could no longer escape the violence and the clampdown hand. How can you love a man with no strength left to run, who only knows running, runs even from his pride?

A tree is wooden thing, it has no arms to embrace you, it cannot breathe as a lover. Have you touched a man with no arms before? One with no breath?

He has had only trees to protect him when he is afraid of the shells, too afraid to run to his mother, too used to becoming a thing of wood.

Still, he knows the soil, not as peasant farmers know it, seeing in it the sowing and the turning of the seasons, nor as the poor children you see in documentaries know it, playing there in the filth. He knows it as it is defined in creation stories.

He had a crude doll he made from the earth in which to place his dreams, but he could not admit the truth of it even to himself. He could not breathe spirit into it for fear it would become like him, a man on the smugglers’ road.

Do not love a refugee. There will be no room for you, for your trinkets or your gifts, in his little bag. His bag is full of shrapnel, severed fingers, parties to a shattered view — the remains of streets, his school, the opened pavement next door. The mothers who haven’t slept for years, thinking they are waiting for the births of their children, not knowing what hell their children have been taken to — they too cross in his bag.

The pictures of those children, alive, do not appear on your TV screens. They are too far “outside the norm”. How can he be free of the loneliness of those children’s lives?

He has become something beyond your standards. Where would you put your love for him? Can you imagine what your love would be after a year in such company?

Do not love a refugee. Or love him, if you want a life of waiting, mornings of tight-lipped news, sudden bursts of crying, unexplained. In the morning, you will dance crazily after a victory. You will not understand it — it is the victory of a few men with a pair of rifles in the street he spent his childhood playing in.

Or love him, if you want to know the time in the cities of the world he’s saved on his phone, so he can know if his brothers and friends from the old gang are waking now to a new dawn or are just settling to the night’s long talk.

Maybe, if you love him, you will see his own face returning, over the lines of the six maps that define him now. Maybe you will find the traces of soil from his journey fit for sowing new seeds, new dreams, dreams beyond the flight from his home, dreams of redefining what is possible and what is not.

Maybe, if you fall in love with a refugee, you will know what it means to breathe the air, to have a home, what it means to belong, to be safe, to dream. What we believe in must exist, else we sink and drown. And only those who are drowning know the wrench of not being able to breathe; only refugees know that. If you fall in love with one of them, will you know the wrench of losing a home?

Ahmad al-Mouhmad, translated from Arabic by Jamie Osborn. Originally published by The Missing Slate.

Ahmad al-Mouhmad is 27 and from Syria. He worked as a visualiser for luxury fashion brands in Kuwait from 2014-2015. He was unable to renew his visa in Kuwait because the Syrian government demanded that he join the army. He fled to Turkey, where he applied for work but was told that only Turkish citizens would be employed in respectable companies, not Syrian refugees. He crossed by boat to the Greek island of Chios, where he has now been for eight months, including through the winter, living in a tent with no protection from sub-zero temperatures. He has been denied asylum and is threatened with deportation. He says, “All I ask for is a safe place to be and to go back to a normal life. All I need is to leave the nightmare I’m living in, and find a job so I can use my skills and passion, have a purpose and feel like a human being again.”

Jamie Osborn spent the summer volunteering with refugees in Chios, Greece. As founder of Cambridge Student PEN and contributing editor (formerly Senior Poetry Editor) at The Missing Slate, he has translated and published writing by refugees hoping to raise their voices abroad. Having spent some months in efforts to help refugees and campaign for climate justice from his hometown of Hastings, he is now an intern at WHO in Geneva.. 

Click here to read Jamie Osborn’s profile of Ahmad al-Mouhmad

Photography by Kristian Skeie, Lausanne.

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