‘I can tell you’re Afghan’, explained the volunteer, ‘because you have Chinese eyes, like this’, she demonstrated, stretching the skin either side of her eyes with her index fingers. I stared, horrified by this un-PC behaviour, but Ramazan roared with laughter.
Ramazan and I were friends for a week, or maybe ten days. It isn’t long, as friendships go, but I find I think of him often. Ramazan has an infectious smile, eyes that convey both shyness and confidence, a small but strong frame for his 20 years and reddish brown hair. I only wish I knew where he was.
When I think of Afghanistan I think of the most gracious people I’ve ever met. People who shake your hand and then touch their heart. When I first saw Ramazan I felt a wave of joy and relief. We were not in his country, nor in mine, but in a field in the hills of northern Greece in Europe’s fastest-growing refugee camp.
I had been in Idomeni just a few hours when I learnt that Afghans were often jostled out of food lines. I asked a Greek policeman to protect them and he replied: ‘This is a camp for refugees not Afghans. Show me where they are and I’ll arrest them.’
We decided to bring supplies directly to them. Laden with see-through bags of bread, milk and biscuits I found myself tailed by Syrian children as I strode through the camp looking for Afghans. ‘No Syrians, it’s for Afghans’, said a fellow volunteer – words that no child should ever hear. In Idomeni there was no time to train people in the dos and don’ts of aid distribution, but I learnt my lesson fast. Mortified, I hurried on until I saw the unmistakably Afghan face of Ramazan. ‘Thank Christ for that,’ I breathed a sigh of relief, ‘I’ll drop the food with that guy and make a hasty exit.’
‘This is a camp for refugees not Afghans. Show me where they are and I’ll arrest them.’
Over the next days we brought clothes, food and sanitary kits to Ramazan and his group of friends. We mastered subtle ways to smuggle aid around the camp under the cover of darkness. ‘We like fruit,’ explained the old man in their party, ‘I especially like bananas’.
Ramazan is from Helmand in southern Afghanistan. He saw me simply as myself, yet I could not separate my own identity from my country’s role in the war he was fleeing. My guilt was stoked by his kindness. Europe has grown tired of the Afghan war. ‘I was an interpreter for the British’, said a man in their group, fishing papers out of his tent. ‘The Taliban say I’m a collaborator, if I stayed they would kill me’. How could I tell him this would not guarantee asylum in the UK?
I was becoming nervous at the prospect of saying goodbye to my friend. I went to his tent, ‘Ramazan has gone,’ said a girl, ‘he left this morning.’