I need to try to describe the look in the refugees’ eyes. Most of them have abyssal depths, there is something veiled about them, something broken. Their eyes are often breathtaking, light in colour, but they have a melancholic depth to them. “I’d give my own eyes to go home,” one old man told us. It feels as if they can all still see the country they have left behind, right there in their eyes. That is what gives them this depth. Exile is in a person’s eyes.
One afternoon I meet two girls, Shaveen et Roucheng. The first is 19, the other 16. They show us into their family tent and answer our questions frankly. They are just a couple of teenagers. Shaveen is wearing a sweatshirt and has taken care doing her hair. She blushes when Ania, our interpreter, asks whether it is a boy who keeps calling on her mobile. We could be anywhere in the world, talking to two teenagers… except that we are inside this tent and the wind is making the canvas flap noisily… except for the things Shaveen tells us: her father was imprisoned in Syria, and her family spent many weeks waiting, fearing for his life. Then he was freed and they immediately made the decision to flee. It is not when she is describing those weeks spent with her mother, her brothers and sisters that Shaveen starts to cry. It is a little later, when she tells us about the university course she had to give up. Now she cries. Because life came to a stop. Overnight. For every one of these ten thousand people a life was stopped in its tracks. Like Shaveen, these men and women had plans and aspirations. Exile swept all that aside. Life will not be as they anticipated. And now Shaveen cannot yet picture a different future, she thinks it is all over for her at 19. And she cries because this misery has robbed her life.
"Despite the misery that has them in its clutches, they are beautiful and it is their beauty that will stay with me when I go back to France"
Deep down, it is not their country that we see in their eyes. Their country no longer exists. Most of them do not know this yet and they still talk of “home”, but if and when they can go back, they will never find that home, because when they use that word what they actually mean, without even realising it, is “life before”. Home means their houses as they were before the war, it means their neighbours, their routines, their hopes. That all belongs in the past. And this is what we see in their eyes: nostalgia for an uprooted life. Shaveen eventually smiles and wipes away her tears. We tell her she must hang on to life, and we secretly hope that she finds the strength to invent another life for herself. With her young nineteen-year-old heart. And may all the others have the strength too, all those gathered here around Shaveen and Roucheng, with newborn babies in their arms, may they have the strength to build a different life, not the one they originally anticipated, so that their eyes do not glimmer with the dull light of defeat but with something bright and irresistible like human will. They already so often have that twinkle. And that is what sometimes makes me want to bow down to them. Because, despite the misery that has them in its clutches, they are beautiful and it is their beauty that will stay with me when I go back to France, their beauty which is noble and intact… like Shaveen’s smile.