‘I pray for you my friend. Also thank your friend and tell her I pray for her daughter and family.’
He said this in an accent that was anything but Brazilian.
The gratitude in his eyes could not be missed. This man was either Mahmoud or Jamal or someone else, I cannot be sure. Thirty minutes before this moment I was returning from the Capoiera class with my friend Mairton. My friend also happens to be my host and teacher in this city, Rio De Janeiro. I am an Indian traveling through the world for ‘The 12 Project’ .
Who Was This Man?
Eliana, my friend’s wife, heaved a sigh of relief when she saw us walking towards the apartment. She said, ‘Sachin, good you are here. This man needs some help and he speaks English’.
‘My name is Mahmoud, I am from Iraq. I have to reach Sao Paulo because there is a imam there who will help me with the legalisation process’.
His English wasn’t perfect but it wasn’t bad either. It took a few seconds for the situation to sink in.
I was speaking to a refugee. He was from Iraq. And I was not in USA or Europe. I was in Brazil.
How could this happen?
Eliana was scared, with enough reason. It was then that I understood why she was relieved to see us. Like many Brazilians she is an irregular speaker of English. This made it difficult for her to understand this man’s middle eastern accent.
And in Rio, if you are walking alone and you are stopped, it could be for a robbery attempt.
‘But do you have any identification?’ I asked.
‘No, but I can speak Arabic.’ Then he went on to say a few lines in what must have been Arabic.
Then without warning he lifted his t-shirt to reveal a scar that ran from his chest to his navel.
‘My country have war culture, my friend. AK culture. I need to go to Sao Paulo and I have 85 reais. Need 45 more. Anything you can help with?'(sic)
He was insistent, but I could not sense desperation in his voice. ‘I am tired my friend. Nobody speaks English here. I am tired’. He sighed like a man who was trying but had also come to accept his fate.
As a foreigner in Brazil, I could at least relate to this part of his problem.
What Were We Supposed To Do?
It seemed Eliana and Mairton wanted me to decide. We asked Mahmoud to wait for five minutes.
It was clear that even if the man was lying, he was certainly a refugee from the middle east. We looked up the bus fares from Rio to Sao Paulo. Cheaper tickets were at 100 reais.
He seemed to be fair in the help he was asking for.
I went back to him with some money that we felt would get him to Sao Paulo. This time we were on either sides of the apartment gate. In many ways, it was a metaphor for his status.
He was unwelcome and induced some fear, but people on my side probably could not even imagine the horrors that he might have been running from.
Mahmoud had(or at least claimed to have) traveled alone on a container ship. He had left his Iraqi city of Falluja thirty six days before we met.
Have We Ever Felt Hunger?
He accepted the money that I passed to him. He felt that it would be able to get him to Sao Paulo.
Then, with some hesitation showing on his weather beaten face he asked. ‘My friend, do you think you can give me something to eat?’
He probably hadn’t eaten for hours, if not for longer. ‘But nothing with pork, my friend. I am Muslim’.
Dinner was feijoda, like most nights. It is a dish for which pork is an essential ingredient. So Eliana gave me apples, cookies and bottled water for him.
He took a long swig, as I looked on.
I tried to picture his long journey. Like countless refugees, he probably would not have known where his next meal was going to come from.
That people take such dreadful journies with uncertain reactions at their destinations, should be enough to fill our hearts with compassion. They would not take these trips if conditions back home were even a tad bearable.
Highlighted city is Falluja. Mahmoud claimed to be from there.(Map image credits: google)
I Shook Hands With Saddam Twice, But I Can’t Be Sure It Was Him.
‘I was commandent in Saddam’s army.'(sic)
This made me step out of the gate to get to know more about this man. Even if he was lying, at least it was going to be an interesting story.
That he hated the USA, was clear. But he did not have great love for Saddam either.
‘Saddam was an asshole, man. But at least my country was stabilised. America broke my country.‘(sic)
‘I worked for the military. I shook hands with Saddam twice, but I don’t think it was him. He had 12 copies.'(sic)
‘I don’t think Saddam is dead, man. Really, my friend.’
His statements led me to ask him more questions. There is no reason to believe that he was lying. But I am not naive either to believe every word he said.
The only thing I knew was that this man was probably on the most difficult journey of his life. And if a few of our reais and food, helped his cause, then I would do this many times again.
(You must listen to our chat that I recorded on my phone. He did not want me to click his picture, and I respected that).
Think The Refugee Problem Does Not Affect You? Think Again.
Even with countless facebook comments and hyperactive twitter newsfeed, the refugee crisis may seem distant for many. To be honest, it did seem a far away occurence to me. That was until I met Mahmoud.
My understanding of war and politics is fairly limited. But I did learn a thing that night.
That, leaders of this world(who are also responsible for creating this problem) need to get together and figure out a way to screen and support refugees.
Wouldn’t you agree that turning away someone who is running from a living nightmare is a crime against humanity?
We need to find a way to help these people out. And we need to find it really fast.
For whatever bubble we are living in, the refugee crisis is closer than we think.
If I could meet one in Brazil, then trust me you could meet one anywhere in the world.