The barber of Aleppo

‘Take a seat!’ said Mohammad, peering at my eyebrows. The enterprising barber from Aleppo welcomed me to his roadside salon. I had assumed the long queue was for soup, coffee, cigarettes or some such precious commodity. Stationed at the entrance of the refugee camp, Mohammad and his thread took me entirely by surprise.

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I wouldn’t have thought a stylist could contribute much in the life of a refugee camp. A doctor – yes; a lawyer; carpenter; linguist; teacher – all these people could make a real difference. But hairstyling and eyebrow threading are luxuries of an ordered world.

Refugees need food and shelter, clothes, medicines – the bare necessities that I had travelled to Idomeni to provide. And yet, how wrong I was.

People in Idomeni slept in fields that make Glastonbury look dry. They had no showers, no clean toilets, cast-off clothes, ill-fitting trousers held up by belts or rope. Little boys wore pink. Remove all choice over what you eat, where you live, where you go, who your neighbours are, what your future holds, whether you can protect your family.

People in Idomeni slept in fields that make Glastonbury look dry

Nobody really smiled when I gave them something they needed to survive. But faces lit up when a group of clowns performed tricks alongside food lines, when children were given balloons to play with. Kids riding bicycles yelled with delight – even when the bikes had no tyres. Teenagers cheered on breakdancers. Music, of any kind, lifted spirits.

Mohammad left Aleppo with the essentials of his trade – scissors, clippers, combs, thread and gel. When we met he’d arranged two chairs in a five-foot gap between a German radio truck and a parked car. On either side people living in camping tents hung out their rain-soaked blankets to dry, lit fires with anything that would burn and set about making breakfast. Mohammad charged a small fee. He was one of few people able to make honest money at the camp.

In a place where people were humiliated daily, I watched the pride creep back into his customers faces and the spring in their step as they strutted back into the camp. Mohammad restored a semblance of dignity. I declined his offer to thread my eyebrows, but slightly wish I hadn’t.

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