I can’t really say I’ve had a good summer this year despite having a lot of time on my hands. The unbearable heat has finally taken its toll on me, leading to more afternoons at the beach. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining in the slightest. But having so much free time also means I get to follow what’s going on in the world more closely. Sadly, we all know that thousands did not get to live another summer. These past three months have been marred by brutal atrocities in war-stricken countries. Although I feel utterly saddened by the boundless ruthlessness of mankind, I’m not even remotely shocked by news of war crimes. I was only eight when I was first introduced to the existence of war. Since then war victims have always been in my thoughts, hence the reason why I don’t get appalled by the occasional media coverage of the suffering of children in war-torn countries.
One afternoon in the summer of 1998, I noticed three girls playing next to our patio. I was super excited about having new friends to spend the summer with, so the following day I joined them for a game of hide and seek. However, I found it strange that they could speak neither Maltese nor English. In fact, I couldn’t quite communicate with them at first. Then I found out that they were from Iraq. Two of them were siblings, and if my memory serves me right, their names were Venos and Skiros. They had a younger brother, who at the time couldn’t have been older than five. The other girl, Shams, was eleven, and had two older sisters.
At the age of eight, I had never heard of Iraq before and I was curious to know why they had ended up in Malta. My parents told me that our new neighbours were refugees, but I wasn’t sure what that meant. A few days later, the girls explained that they had to flee their country because Iraq was a dangerous and violent place. Every time we met I asked them about their schools and their friends in Iraq. At first they were eager to tell me all about their life in Iraq, but after a couple of months, when homesickness started to sink in, they spoke of home with an expression of wistfulness.
By the end of summer they could speak Maltese fluently, yet their integration at school didn’t go so well. They found it hard to make new friends and they underperformed in many subjects. I felt sorry for them and committed myself to helping them out with their homework. Just like any other children, we argued, became best friends again, and got ourselves into trouble. Meanwhile, my parents kept reminding me that my new friends have had a tumultuous life so far, and therefore I should always share my toys with them.
I don’t remember how long they were in Malta for, but back then I thought they would always be my best friends. A year later, their families and a number of other Iraqi refugees were relocated to the United States. The night before they left we embraced in a tearful goodbye. My parents tried to console me by telling me that they will have a better life in America, but I was in tears all night.
A few weeks after their departure, I received the first letter from Shams. We carried on writing letters and sending pictures to each other, until Shams suddenly stopped writing back. To this day, I have never heard from her again. Venos and Skiros never wrote to me, and Shams had lost contact with them after settling down in the U.S. Throughout the years I’ve tried tracking them down on social networks and online directories, but to no avail.
I don’t have a picture of Venos and Skiros, and I have just a vague memory of their faces. But when I see images of terrified children in Syria, Gaza and Iraq, it’s almost as if I’m looking into the eyes of my childhood friends.