By Amarachi Okpunobi
The snow had melted away, and you could see that through the windows, so you rolled your bed away and locked up your belongings. The room was filled with men and smelled like tobacco and gin. You still wondered how you survived each day with a room full of men. Men from all over the world, men like you. You knew that some had lost their way and that no redemption was on the way. You understood it all; and your sanity was the most important, if you must return home.
You dreamt of home and how far it has become, across several oceans and lands, a journey that took two years of your life. You walked into the park, and you could feel the sun rays in the cold afternoon, it shone brightly. It was like a blessing. So peaceful in your face, as you dragged the cigarette and felt at peace within yourself. Down in the alley, the pretty girls played basketball in their heavy winter clothes. You just stared at them, and for a second thought, you walked towards them.
‘Hey wanna join?’ one of them asked you in a clear English accent and threw the ball at you; you held it in your palm, bounced it once, stamped and aimed at the basket. You made a three point on first throw. They were really impressed by your skills. You felt like a champion.
‘Nice shot,’ the blond girl said. You smiled.
‘Where are you from?’ the first girl asked you. They threw the ball back at you.
‘Nigeria,’ you said smiling, bouncing the ball around and going for your second aim. The Spanish girl sitting down on the bench finished tying her shoe lace and ran to block you. You ducked like a pro and made another shot.
‘Aha, Nigeria, yea I have a colleague from Nigeria, you might want to meet him… I work with UNICEF here in Geneva, my name is Gina,’ the first girl said to you with a smile on her face.
‘Sam,’ you said smiling back at her.
‘And these are my friends…’ she pointed at the Spanish girl first.
‘Shina,’ the Spanish said smiling at you.
‘And…’ Gina said pointing at the blond girl.
‘Natasha’ she said and shook your hands.
You know what, Geneva, it’s the international city, you know the whole world lives here and is easy to communicate and get along with anyone. You enjoyed that, you are happy you came here after all, but then you remembered your condition and that happiness melted like ice. You wished it wasn’t that bad. You wanted everything to work out on its own, but you are the boxer, you the master of patience. You believe it.
You know that one day you will be able to park your pathfinder by the basketball court, play and probably drop the girls off. You imagined it. You wanted that life, you think you have come a long way and giving up wasn’t part of your plan now. Like the priest used to say back home, ‘the goodness of God comes slowly.’ You believed that more than any other person.
You are tall enough to slam the ball in the basket, so to impress the girls you made a rush for it, your heavy biceps and strength helped grip the basket rim, you slammed the ball into it. They clapped for you; they were really impressed by your skills.
‘Hey: It’s really nice to meet you, may I ask what you are doing in Geneva?’ Gina asked.
That’s one question you don’t answer proudly. You drag your foot with it. You don’t easily respond. But of what use is keeping it to yourself? You thought, why hold back, after all, to you they are strangers and you might never see them again after this, you convinced yourself. So, you opened up. You have learned to accept your fate; you have learned to answer that one name you dreaded watching it being used on the televisions when you were back home in Nigeria, that name that should not be called or spoken of, ‘refugee.’ To you it spells nothing but poverty, homelessness and someone in need of help. You don’t like asking for help, you like to do it all by yourself. You prepared to take your chances on the street rather than wait for a paltry sum from the government. You are a hard worker and a fighter. You want to be seen as such and not as a refugee.
‘You know, my colleague is from Nigeria, maybe he will be able to help you with a shelter or something or something… wait,’ she said. You felt speechless, and you wanted to stop her from making the call, but something in you didn’t want to, something that doesn’t want to make you look ungrateful or proud. You have been brought up to appreciate each act of kindness, so you just said ‘thank you.’
She put the phone on loud speaker and you could hear the beep as it rang on the end of the phone. A voice answered, ‘Hi, Gina, today you have remembered to call me, are we having dinner tonight?’
Gina smiled, you knew that smile. It was the type that says I am not calling you to hang out with you, but just for a favour.
‘Hey, John, I have a guy from Nigeria here, probably he is from your tribe too, he is a great guy and just in a situation that needs your help…’
The next voice that came from the other end of the receiver wasn’t that of a flirtatious lover, it sounded a lot steamier and agitated.
‘No, no Gina, you won’t understand this country, I will explain to you later…’
‘Can you at least speak with him?’
‘Where is he from? Is he Igbo?’
She looked at you expecting an answer, you nodded right.
‘Yes he is…’
A pause followed.
‘No, no, no, no, no, I don’t want to speak with him, let’s meet in the office and discuss this first, Gina.’
You know how the country works; you have met good men and bad men from your country.
Most of your countrymen are not willing to carry anyone’s burden. Just like in a jungle, every man for himself, nobody cares how you survive or make it or pull yourself through and no one wants to be dragged down with you even with their influence. You knew it. You smiled at her, but she wasn’t smiling. Her facial appearance was more of disbelief than understanding. She nodded her head strangely. The voice at the other end of the phone had died. You wiped the sweat off your forehead.
‘I am really sorry, I wish I could have done more for you,’ Gina said. From the lines on her face, you could see the sincerity in her words. Pity lined up as well on her forehead. You wanted to see more, compassion, maybe that kind of compassion that you are used to, that kind of compassion that would make a man do anything for the survival of another. But none of them appeared on those lines. These are the same lines you have seen in many of them that came to Africa as missionaries working at the Village.
It is a line that defines special care for the poor African man rather than equality or dignity. To you, it was like having a pet you care about and yet willing to let him die when the time comes. You have seen movies about wars in Africa and how some of them get on the plane to leave with the same care and pity on their faces. You are used to it, so you watched her get into her car and drove away. Maybe you are wrong, maybe you are right. But you are still waiting for someone to prove you wrong, and up till now, you haven’t seen that person yet.
The sun has gone down bright like an orange in the distant cloud. You walked a few meters into the open park, sweaty and cold; you removed another cigarette from your pack and lit it. You dragged it and felt at peace as if each drag came with a consolation.
It’s all in my head you thought.
Making your way back and close to the asylum house gate, a young man approached you, tipped his hat at you and adjusted his jacket. You knew he wasn’t from around here. You have seen many like him since you came to stay in this place. You knew what he wanted, just statistics and facts, that’s what you are worth to them and you knew it. In his eyes, you know you have no dignity. You are just another number stealing from the government. You are no stranger to that feeling. Somehow you still managed to smile.
‘Sprechen du deutsch?’ he asked you with a smile on his face too. You have been around for a long time around here. You have met people from all over Europe, you know a little bit of everything, especially languages, so it wasn’t a problem replying in German, but you knew you couldn’t communicate effectively.
‘Nein, English oder französisch,’ you responded with your little knowledge of German and let him know the languages you understood better.
‘English will be fine Sir,’ he said courteously.
You don’t like being addressed as Sir, so you corrected him immediately.
‘Samuel, call me Samuel and how may I help you?’ you inquired.
‘My name Burk, I am a PHD student in Political Science from the University of Berlin,’ He said.
Definitely you knew no person would walk into the refugee area apart from refugees and the educated ones looking for numbers and statistics.
‘May I just ask you a few questions Sir, if you don’t mind,’ he smiled.
You knew they would always ask a few questions with a smile on their faces, not a welcoming smile, but one that longs rather for answers. That smile wasn’t sympathizing; instead it was filled with awe and curiosity. Maybe when you tell your story they will think you are another lunatic that tried to cross the ocean at the risk of his own life. You laughed in your mind, after all the frustrated among them have no place to go rather than commit suicide.
‘May I ask how you came to Geneva and became an asylum seeker?’ he asked you.
You have told that emotional heart wrecking story over and over so that you didn’t even want to repeat it. You have been here long enough to realize that nothing comes out of it.
‘I arrived in Geneva four months ago for a conference, due to the political instability I decided to apply for asylum,’ you answered.
‘Do you think they are treating you fairly? And will you rate the facility, good, fair, poor or excellent? ‘ He asked, scribbled a few words on his paper.
‘Poor,’ you answered.
‘And may I ask why?’ he asked looking into your eyes as if the answers will correspond with your facial expression.
‘Well, many promises never get fulfilled, look at our quarters, they are nothing to talk about…’ you answered. You are not a man of many words. You easily get irritated talking about things like this. The young scholar felt your irritation and refrained from asking further questions.
‘Thank you Samuel for helping with this project,’ he said.
You smiled, shook the hand he offered and walked into the building.
The Ethiopians and Palestinians took different corners in the room smoking Shisha with their hookah. You are the only West African in the room. You don’t smoke with either of them. You rolled your bed and lay quietly. You are haunted. You are. The memories flooded your head once again. A fighter in the desert that watched men die. A fighter in a sea that was saved by a miracle. You slept.
The night has come; the lights are shining in from the distance. You looked at your watch and it was 12 am. You made your way to the night club. That was where you wanted to be. You just wanted a coloured room with girls dancing, and that’s where you went to. You sat in the lounge; the pretty girls were shaking their asses and sashayed past you. You bought a glass of whisky. Took the first sip and let it burn your mouth before burning your throat.
Then you gulped the rest of the whisky and walked into the ballroom. You just came to feel yourself. To dance alone no matter how strange it looks. But you don’t mind if a pretty girl walks into your space. That night you made more money from selling your drugs to the young men in fine suits and a lady in a nice party outfit. It is about your survival and nothing else. You understand that better. No girl came your way till the dancing light went off and you went home.
You are up again, back at the gym. The boxer doesn’t miss his practice. Life has punched your head and to balance it, it was necessary for you to punch something, so you chose to be a boxer. You knew the sun would shine on you in the future and you would find your heart within its rays, on that tiny stream of light.
You now knew there were no thousands of fish washed ashore, but you could still grab a handful of them. Home was only in your heart, a place you longed for and went to through the desert and sea each day of your life. It is the most difficult and painful path one could take. A pain only a boxer could bear.