Featured Writer Deepika Suresh Kumar's Phoenix
Yara was holding the orange phoenix bird close to her chest. She did not expect Gabriel to ask for it. Standing in the breezy playground under the hot scorching mid-day sun, the sweat on her forehead started to drip onto the blue hijab that covered her full-sleeved blouse. The long leggings did not hide her tremors. Her tear-filled eyes looked as if the clouds would start pouring on seeing her pain and fright.
‘Gabby, please! I can’t share it or give it to you’, Yara said in a mild tone.
Deliberately pulling her hijab closer to her eyes, she thought her tears may be unnoticed. She did the whole action using her right hand while holding the bird tightly in her left hand.
Gabriel became furious, her cheeks turned red in anger. Her wavy brown hair was flying thanks to the strong wind.
‘I will not run away with this piece of paper!” she screamed, stamping her foot firmly.
‘You ran away from your country. My country, France, gave you space to live! Now, you’re not even ready to show me an origami bird! Hold the paper tight so that it does not fly away.’ Gabriel spoke without any pause. Unwilling to extend this conversion she rolled her polka dot sleeves up and gave Yara a wrathful look before turning away and walking towards their class.
Yara looked around slowly, she noticed that everyone in the playground was staring at her. Taking a deep breath to subdue her emotions, she thought ‘Yara, don’t
look up again. Everyone will stare at you as always! You have to understand
that you’re the only hijab wearing girl in the whole school, the only one displaced from your home country. Today’s incident has led to more eyes popping! Relax and don’t let this
incident hurt you. Your main goal is to study well and make Umma, Abu and
Jamal happy. You can surely survive in this school without any friends as you
did for the last five months. By aunt’s help we are somehow managing to lead a happy
life in France.'
She tried consoling herself and stuffed the origami bird slowly into her shoulder bag.
Slowly she started to walk away from the playground. When walking she made sure not to lift her head or make eye contact with the other students. She climbed the stairs then walked towards her class. She was actually late to class and Maitresse Jessie was already inside the classroom.
Maitresse Jessie had changed her hairstyle. Ghana braids on her blonde hair, her frill shirt complemented her knee length skirt.
‘Maitresse, may I come in?’ Yara spoke in a very mild tone. Maitresse Jessie, waved at her to come in.
Yara moved briskly, crossing Gabriel’s table which was much closer to the green board. Without making eye contact, she walked towards her desk. Pushing her shoulder bag, under the desk she sat on the chair comfortably.
Maitresse Jessie started to talk, ‘As I told you all a few mins back, we will be practicing talking on-stage this month. Each one of you will come to the dais and talk about something that terrified you. Talking about your bad experiences in a safe space will help you lose your fears,' she completed looking at the students.
‘Yara, d you want to take the lead?’ Maitresse Jessie spoke. Yara nodded, aware that she did not have much of a choice.
Pushing the chair back, Yara leaned over to pick her water bottle. Then she started walking sluggishly towards the dais. Ignoring Gabriel’s presence, she climbed onto the dais. Placing the bottle under her feet, she started to talk.
‘Good afternoon, good afternoon everyone’, Yara repeated in a very mild tone. She was gasping for air. Closing her eyes for a minute, she prayed deeply to stay calm.
She resumed, ’I was actually getting used to the ‘Boom! Boom!’ sound of missile strikes in Aleppo, my home city in Syria. Every now and then we saw ‘black’ smoke covering the whole city. People will be ‘cough, cough!’ coughing around, we could hear a lot of ‘weh’ sobbing, the ground would be splattered with ‘red’ blood everywhere and pieces of human bodies hiding under the stone debris after each air strike. Every week Abu used to talk to aunt Felica and uncle Hassan updating them about the current status of Aleppo city.’
She took a pause. ‘My primary school was hit by missiles a few months back. The entire building collapsed, but actually the missiles hit during the night or else we kids would have been killed!’ she sighed.
Opening her eyes she saw the faces of the students and noted that they
had a lot of questions. She closed her eyes again so she
could talk without fear.
‘Jamal, my younger brother and myself stayed at home after the school bombing. I don’t know why they are bombing Syria. Umma and Abu were always worried about our safety. Abu wanted to take us and his friend Taimur's family to France so aunt Felica could help. Going to Greece by rubber boat was the only affordable way to keep us alive, Abu used to say. But that journey was extremely hard.’ She stopped for a bit. She bent down, took the water bottle, had a few sips and placed it back.
‘Don’t be afraid of anyone, talk bravely’, Maitresse Jessie told Yara. Yara had not been asked to speak about this incident or about Syria before this.
Now Yara spoke in a louder tone.
'That morning Abu told Umma
to pack our bags with food and water. Umma instructed Jamal and myself to eat
well and told us not to drink water as there won’t be toilets in the boat. Umma
and Abu gave us a lot of instructions over the past five months on how to
manage this journey. While we were getting ready, Uncle Taimur came home with
aunt Amira and Sandra. We all waited for sunset to start the journey.'
Yara took a few minutes remembering that terrible night.
Tears were rolling from Yara’s eyes. Trying to help Yara release the tension which was building up, Maitresse Jessie urged Yara to return to her seat and continue talking while seated. Yara obeyed Madame’s instructions and walked towards her desk faster.
Trying to sit at the edge of her chair Yara started to talk, 'before we started from home, Umma lit a chimney lamp. She then tied a keffiyeh between Jamal’s arms and mine with some space to walk easily. Then she took two long keffiyehs, tied it around our waists and connected mine with Abu’s and Jamal’s with her’s. Abu checked the knots well so that we don’t get lost while walking in the dark. Abu covered the top of our shoes with cloth and added duct tape, so that we don’t feel pain while walking. Auntie wrapped baby Sandra, with a cloth sling and placed a pacifier in her mouth. And Uncle Taimur also tied his waist with to auntie’s waist. Carrying small bags on our shoulders, Abu walked in front with the light, followed by me, then Jamal, Umma, Amira auntie holding Sandra followed by Taimur Uncle. We all bid goodbye to our homes and our village. We started to walk in line briskly matching everyone’s speed for an hour inside the paddy farm and between dense trees. Jamal and myself were counting the stars and admiring the beautiful waxing crescent of the moon. We took a break every now and then. Finally we were able to see the sea shore. The chimney got turned off as the oil was over. The driver waved with a white flag from a distance. Abu turned on the dim flashlight, using that we slowly walked towards the boat.’
Yara stopped again.
Her eyes were filled with tears, Maitresse Jessie gave her a towel to wipe. She tried hugging Yara to console her and then said ‘Yara! You can talk tomorrow or stop here if you are finding it difficult.’
‘No Maitresse I can talk, please give me few minutes’, Yara added while wiping her tears. Clearing her throat ‘ahem, ahem’ she began to talk.
‘It was very dark and the surface of the shore was not even. Everyone found it difficult to walk on uneven rocks using dim light. Jamal fell down while walking. Abu lifted him forcefully not knowing his hand was stuck between the sedimentary rocks. Jamal’s arm got a deep cut and he cried in so much pain. Abu carried Jamal in his arms, walked towards the rubber boat while uncle Taimur directed everyone using the flash light. Before reaching the boat Jamal lost his consciousness.’
‘We reached the boat. Driver Faisal embraced Uncle Taimur and Abu. Using the bright light which he had in the boat Abu and Umma examined Jamal’s wound. Blood was oozing out. Using keffiyeh, Umma and Uncle Taimur tied his wound tightly not knowing it may actually damage the blood flow. We all wore life jackets and Abu wrapped a lifejacket around the unconscious Jamal, we all hopped into the boat one by one. Faisal added extra sand bags from the shore to adjust the boat’s weight. He then turned on the motor and we started to move away from the shore bidding bye to Syria. Abu splashed water on Jamal’s face to try waking him up, he did not respond. No one inside the boat knew what was to be done. The sea was much calmer. Baby Sandra started to cry. Covering herself, aunt Amira tried feeding her milk. Umma was crying badly on seeing Jamal not regaining consciousness. Faisal told Abu, not to worry that we may reach the shore in another ten minutes. And the coast guard will be there with an ambulance’ Yara stopped.
Her hijab was completely wet due to her tears and sweat, she continued ‘We reached the Greek shore. Thank God people around us helped so much. A van and an ambulance were waiting, Uncle Taimur’s family were told to board the van. They were not allowed into Greece, this van will take them to refugee camp in France. We all hurried to the hospital with Jamal, his hands already swollen. The doctors took him to examine him. We were called inside. IV liquids were given to Jamal and his wounds were properly dressed. Doctors found his blood group and a nurse brought a blood bag to transfuse to him. We were informed that Jamal’s left hand requires multiple surgeries to get proper blood flow and a lot of physical therapies. We all were devastated. That was a horrific night’ Yara ended.
‘How is your brother doing now?’ Maitresse Jessie questioned in agony.
‘He had two surgeries done in the past five months. Therapists and Umma are helping him to work on his hand movement.’ Yara spoke happily with her eyes brightening up in joy. She took the origami bird from her bag and showed it to Maitresse Jessie.
‘Jamal is very good in origami. This is the last phoenix bird he did before the hand injury. This bird is precious to me’ she spoke in joy about her brother who was just a year younger than her.
Listening to Yara's talk about her life and experiences made Gabriel feel bad.
She stood up from her chair, ‘Maitresse Jessie, I need to say sorry for behaving badly towards Yara this whole time!’ Gabriel burst out into tears.
Maitresse Jessie and Yara ran towards Gabriel. Yara tried to hug Gabriel to console her, ‘Its okay Gabby. Please don’t feel bad’, Yara spoke emotionally.
‘Yara, my uncle was martyred in Syrian war. That’s the reason I hated you badly. I didn’t know that you and your family went through so much to lead a peaceful life. Please forgive me for behaving rudely with you.’ Gabriel ended in a soft tone.
Maitresse Jessie was extremely happy that these ten-year-olds understood the real effects of war.
‘ Let’s always spread positivity making sure this world is free from any wars. Students, I have my hopes pinned on you!’ Maitresse Jessie ended with a bright smile hugging both Gabriel and Yara.
Maitresse - French word -to refer female teacher/professor/educator
Ghana braids - also called as cornrows, straight-backs, or banana braids, These are a classic protective style for natural hair and curly hair. Ghana braids can trace their roots all the way back to Africa.
keffiyeh - an Arab headdress consisting of a square of cloth folded to form a triangle and held on by a cord
About the writer
Deepika Suresh Kumar worked in the software industry for more than 6 years. After becoming a mom, she took a career break and started to work on quiet books. Under the brand Creative PuppetZ, she comes up with book designs and her team stitches these cloth books. Her interest in writing grew gradually, through her instagram page @journalsofmomma. She writes on parenting tips, reviews about books, toys and multiple DIY activities which she makes for her daughter.