He came from the sea, and was born in the sand

Published: 1 August 2011 9:10 CET

By Catherine Lengyel in Tunisia

His name is Daniel. He is tiny, but he is feisty. He has to be. Over the course of only a few weeks, he has experienced more upheavals than most people do in a lifetime. When he opens his eyes, he looks wise beyond his days.

The 15th of July marked the first month of his life. A month ago, he would have fitted into the palm of a hand. Now, it takes two hands to cradle him. He lives with his parents in a tent, at the Al Hayet Transit Camp near the Tunisian border with Libya which was established by the Tunisian Red Crescent and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). His grandparents watch over him anxiously, his young aunt – a medical student – warily monitors his progress, and his ‘big uncle’, all of ten-years-old, stands guard, ready to come to Daniel’s defence at a moment’s notice.

His parents merely smile at him, as the parents of newborns always do. For them, he is a miracle.

And indeed, he really is.

Daniel’s adventures began before he was born. From his parents’ home in Tripoli he has heard the bombing and the shooting, his heartbeat surging as the windows rattled. He has lived in uncertainty, in a container camp in Libya, his heartbeat lethargic and hesitant. He has fled his homeland, and been lost at sea. He has spent five hellish days on an ill-fated ship, with neither food nor water, just when he needed both most. 

Even before he was born, he had shared in his mother’s anxieties, and her panic. He has absorbed the sea water she has had to drink. He has been shipwrecked along with her, and nearly died with her when she almost drowned. He has been saved by his grandfather – twice.

From the struggle at sea off the Tunisian coast at Sfax, to the barren aridity of the TRC/IFRC Transit Camp at Ras Jedir, he endured more trauma than most, even before he was born.

He has kicked and struggled, making his displeasure known in the only way possible to him.

Fed up, he finally made his way into this world, early and alone.

At the hospital in Zarzis, he was born a month prematurely by Caesarean section. His mother recuperated in one room, whilst he lay in another. Thanks to the kindness of strangers, his mother finally saw Daniel on his second day of life – on the screen of a mobile phone. Thanks to the kindness of strangers, his father finally met him on his fourth day, through a taxi ride into town – a seemingly insignificant trip, but for Daniel’s father, a near impossibility, when all he owned had been lost at sea.

By his sixth day, he was lying on a makeshift bed, in a tent, back among the sandy lanes of the Transit Camp. By his eighth day, thanks to the determination and stubborn insistence of the volunteer TRC doctor at the camp clinic, he was once again in hospital, having gained and then lost a quarter of his weight – half a kilogram.

Now, he is back at the camp once again, healthier and growing. It is hot and getting hotter. Daniel is swaddled in blankets, a knitted heart next to him, his only possession – another little sign of the kindness of strangers.

He opens his eyes and squints at the world. His look is weary, and wary – as if he has already seen it all. Perhaps he has. He falls asleep once again, his arms above his head – as if he were giving himself up. Perhaps he is. A hostage to fortune, his future uncertain, it is hard to say what life may have in store for Daniel, next week, next month – let alone next year.

He is not alone in this. There are, of course, other children just like Daniel, whose future will be determined by a ticked box, a shuffle of papers, a policy upheld or overturned, the flow of refugees from here to there. A dispersed community whose future, ultimately, will rest on an accumulation of small acts of kindness from people he will probably never know.

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