Refugee crisis: “Every pair of shoes tells a story”

Amid the horror of the refugee crisis, Glenys Newton, a 51-year-old atheist from Hertfordshire, and Raafat, a 22-year-old Muslim refugee from Syria, found an unexpected, life-changing friendship. This is their story, in their own words...

Glenys Newton: In 2015 I was volunteering on Lesvos, welcoming boats that were arriving, one after the other, packed with refugees seeking safety. I am not a doctor or a lifeguard or a builder nor do I speak the many languages that would be useful, I only knew I could not stand by and do nothing. We offered sweet cups of chai, dry clothes, nappies to replace the sodden ones worn by the cold and wet little babies. We tended wounds, picked people out of the sea, sat with them as they wept and prayed on the ground. People forced to pay thousands to ride the ‘death boat,’ as it was called, while a passenger ferry ploughed the same path for just ten euros if you happen to be able to wave the right bit of paper, if you were born in the ‘right’ country. I had never been in a situation like that and it was overwhelming, but as people arrived many said that the first thing they saw on dry land was my smile, and that they would carry my smile in their heart on their journey across Europe as a reminder of the kindness that there is in the world.

Raafat: I kissed my little brother on the head for the last time. I said goodbye to my mum and set off towards the unknown. I had no other option than to leave the people and the country that I love so dearly. I could never imagine myself carrying a weapon and being told to kill. I had no choice. I didn’t know if I would arrive into the unknown or if I would drown in the seas. I had become just one of the numbers of people who would travel or die.

Glenys: I got obsessed with the shoes. Rows and rows of shoes, small, big, broken, fashionable, functional, every type of shoe and each and every one soaking wet. Every pair of shoes tells a story, and it felt as though it was one thing, in the entire uncontrollable madness of it all, that I could control. I would line them up into very wet, quite wet and dry. Babies, children, women and men’s shoes and then I would try and match them with the next boatload of people. It felt as though I was putting dead men’s shoes onto the next person but they had a long way yet to go, days of walking and I just wanted them to be comfortable. At least that. Each person had either got their feet wet getting into the boat or getting out of the boat or both and I knew that it would be a long time before they would be able to find another pair of shoes.

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Raafat: We arrived in Bodrum at night and walked through some woods to a building on the beach. The building told the stories of thousands of travellers. I don’t know how many of those people became food for the fish. The sea has eaten so many people’s stories. The sea was stormy and the man was drunk, waving a gun around. I wasn’t afraid of the gun, I had already seen so many in my country but there were children going to get on that boat.

We can give clothes and we can give blankets but what we cannot give, and what people are running out of, is time

Glenys: People arrived with tales of being forced into the boat at gunpoint by smugglers. Men who had been separated from their wives and children spent hours, deep into the night, sitting on the beach waiting and waiting for their families to arrive; listening to the stillness of the sea for voices, watching for a glimpse of light from a mobile phone. They sat paralysed with the fear that their loved ones had been lost at sea. Nobody expects to have to prepare for this is in their life. Many had been in Turkey for years waiting for the war to finish, hoping to return to their homes. As their life savings dwindled and the years passed without their children having an education, they were forced to seek alternatives. Their children were running out of childhood. We can give clothes and we can give blankets but what we cannot give, and what people are running out of, is time. Most had never seen the sea before and the smugglers would appoint a person to drive the boat with just a few words of instructions before sending them out onto that seemingly short but endless stretch of water.

Raafat: The driver, one of the refugees, had been given brief instructions on how to drive the boat. We hadn’t gone far when the engine stopped. A few people managed to get it started again and we made our way through the darkness. There was a loud noise from the engine and then silence. The engine was really broken this time and everyone on the boat started screaming and crying. I thought about my mother who was crying when I left and asked me to promise that I would take care of my things. What she really meant was to take care of myself. There were 35 people in the boat. I sat with a Syrian family, a mother with two daughters and two sons. The youngest boy was called Adnan. His tears fell silently but I told him that I was an expert swimmer, a master of the seas and a friend to all of the dolphins who would rescue us if we fell in the sea. He knew that I was lying but he preferred the lies than the fear.

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Glenys: A boat arrived one morning, a beautiful sunny morning. I watched as a young man stepped gracefully and calmly from the boat with his trousers rolled up, his shoes in his hand and his socks in his shoes. Hallelujah! Why couldn’t everyone do that? This was Raafat. The words spilled out, “Are we safe? Are we safe?” I tried to explain to this young boy that he had a long and difficult journey ahead of him, that he had not yet reached safety. “But we are safe from bombs? There are no bombs?” I felt relieved that I could assure him of just that one thing, that there were no bombs. He beamed a smile as wide as the sea he had just crossed and began to chatter wildly about his homeland, the friends in his class that had died, about the friends still living but that he might never see again. He spoke of how he would go back to his homeland, Syria, as soon as there were no more bombs but, for now, he was happy that he could live free of that fear.

We are living an extraordinary time in history, one that our children and grandchildren will be asking us about in the future

Raafat: I took my shoes and socks off to keep them dry and not ruin them. I had promised my mother that I would take care of my things. When we arrived I had a feeling of being born again. I wanted to cry. I wanted to forget everything that I had seen and lived. A new life, a chance to start all over again.

Glenys and Raafat together in Germany

Glenys: The connection made with someone at that moment, hanging between life and death, is so intense that it is difficult to wave goodbye and never know what has happened to them. I knew, though, that I would keep in touch with Raafat. I flew to Germany over the Christmas holidays to see him. He is a truly wonderful young man.

I am just back from Lesvos, having driven a truck of aid there in January. Things in Greece are as dire as ever. There were two deaths from cold in just a few days and four deaths one morning from asphyxiation in a camp. It’s hard not to lose hope.

We are living an extraordinary time in history, one that our children and grandchildren will be asking us about in the future. I do not yet have grandchildren but, should I be so lucky in the future, and they ask me, “Granny, what was it like back then? What were you doing?” instead of not being able to look them in them in the eye with an answer of: “Nothing” I can say: “Well, let me tell you about my dear friend Raafat from Syria, the most courageous and kindest young man I ever did meet…

glenysnewton.co.uk