The first refugee that I came to know in Greece was a small boy whose name I could not at first pronounce. A boy with sandstone-rubbed skin, unkempt dark hair, and fiery eyes. I called him Haz.
He was too small for the age of eleven, wandering through the government-run camp like a dandelion seed, buoyed up and carried upon the air, tumbling through time without ever touching the earth. Whether he had always been that small or had become it, wasted by the rations of bread and old vegetables, I would never know. I feared to take him by the wrist, feared that it might crumble one of those days to dust.
Haz had a face full of freckles. I thought of them like specks of sand on the desert floor, little remnants of the landscape he had slogged through with his mother—busting out the gates of Afghanistan and across the Iranian Plateau to Turkey, and then across the sea. All the while, the freckles blossomed over his nose and cheeks like the tiny scars of baking beneath an unrelenting Middle Eastern sun in June.
When we drove up in the mornings in the white ten-passenger van—past the beggars, past the garbage heaps, past the makeshift tents of rain-soaked sheets—I could pick him out from the throng of swarming children by his long-sleeved grey shirt and his thin wrists, waving above the crowd. It was the same shirt every day, only smudged with a little more dirt, the pit stains creeping outward. The bubbling swarm of kids followed after the van, running and always shouting.
I’m not sure that I had ever felt a stronger embrace from such a small frame. Most days, all Haz wanted to do was pass the flat soccer ball back and forth like a volleyball using only our arms. We stood there and played until our forearms glowed red and burned, all while the other boys ran around on the turf field strewn with trash, playing rowdy games of soccer that ended in squabbles and violence.
There was only one day we pulled up in the van when the children did not swarm, did not follow. The hot, coastal Greek skies were draped with clouds on that morning, casting a gloom and coolness over camp. It was the day that the mothers stooped and sobbed, that the daughters ran the soiled clothes out to the water spout. It was the day that the sons counted their luck, for one of the small boys had died suddenly in the night, dehydrated from a treatable diarrheal virus. My breath caught until I saw Haz across the way, peeking his head out of the big white tent with his dark hair falling in his eyes, waving at me. It could have been him. It could have been any one of them.
The collective wail across the camp that day bellowed from the heart of the earth like a groan of all creation for what had been lost. The older boys had carried the sick child splayed out still on his soiled cot with pale cheeks and limp arms up to the empty medical tent. They carried him there after he had already died, and they found no one.
What I would remember most about Haz, besides his smallness and his wrists, was his smile—full, and boy-toothed, busting at the corners and crowding all of his freckles up toward his eyes, those eyes that were always sharp black but always on fire, even on that day his friend died.
By the last day that I saw him, I had finally learned how to say his name, the proper way. Hazratullah. A name that—among all names, among the infinite possibilities—means the presence of God.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/International Federation for the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.