Back home I have a kitten called Mo. She is the only thing I’ve ever loved, besides my family, and I still cry when I think of her. I miss other things too of course, like my bed tucked up safe against the wall, and the charcoal sketches I drew of my grandfather. Two days before we left, I did the best sketch I have ever done, and I bet it is gone now, I bet it is ash, along with everything else. No one ever told me what happened to our house but I do not think it is still standing there. If it is, then why did we need to leave? If it’s still there then I hate everything. If it is gone then at least this pain is for something.
I wanted to take Mo with me. I tried to hide her in my coat but Father saw and he struck me and she jumped out of my arms with the shock. “We don’t need another mouth to feed,” he said angrily. A second later he had taken my face in his hands and he was saying sorry. That scared me the most. I saw his eyes shine wet for the first time in my life. That was the moment I knew everything was going to be different. My Father apologising, crying, trying to scoop up Mo for me but she had always feared him and she ran off, the white tip of her tail disappearing behind the wall. I can see her now roaming the wreckage of my old house, mewing for me, wondering why I left her.
I feel guilty because all I think of is my stupid kitten. I’m seventeen you know, and I should be worrying about grown up things, like how we are going to stay clean, and how we are going to find the right food for my tiny brother Azzam. He is off milk now which makes things harder. He needs food, but not proper food yet. It’s sort of in between – mush. Where do you get mush from? Mama says Azzam is lucky because he is small. What does that mean? She keeps saying she wishes I had been born later, that I was eleven or twelve, she wishes that I was a proper child. Father says I am a child, but Mama seems very anxious about it, as if she knows a secret. She has got very thin since we arrived in this place. She does not look herself. “If anyone asks, tell them you are fourteen,” she keeps saying, “not thirteen, they will not believe you, but fourteen, they will believe that. Praise Allah you are not a tall girl!”
Everything is muddy here and I am always cold, but I am sort of excited. I am on an adventure. I am not even eighteen and yet I am travelling the world. They seem to like children here; there is food for Azzam and even special tents for him and Mama. She chooses to stay with us though in our shack that Father built with some of the other men from the camp. One of them kept looking at me. “I’m fourteen,” I said, even though he never asked. It made no difference to him anyway, he kept on staring. Father didn’t say anything though because he needed help with our shack and this man was quite a good builder actually.
There is dirt on my arm that will not wash off. It has made a little home in the soft warm skin of the crook of my elbow, a smudge. I wonder if it’ll be there from now on. I don’t try too hard to get it off because I think it is dirt from home.
Every other day or so, a group of strange people come here. Their faces look kind of raw: pink and smooth. And others are the opposite, grey or yellow, like they think the sun is bad and hide from it. They are nice people though, even if they look different to us. Father was suspicious of them until they gave us new shoes, and a fresh tarpaulin for our shack. It is very bright and blue. It reminded me of the sky at home and I started to cry again.
I feel sad that Mo thinks I abandoned her. I know she is only an animal but it makes me feel sick that she is out there alone. What if she catches fire, or gets crushed? What if she is stolen and made to hurt, just for fun? I tell Azzam fairy-tale stories about her; he might grow up thinking he had a sister once called Mo, and Father will beat me for telling lies. But they’re not lies, it’s just that his little brain doesn’t understand stories yet, he thinks they are real. They are not real. This camp is real. The dull freezing ache in my back is real. The dirt on my arm is real.
I had a nightmare last night. There were lots of men strapped up real tight in black clothes and they had clubs in their hands. They broke into our shack and were screaming at us. We were forced outside and it was total chaos, people running around everywhere. One of the strapped-up men pointed his club at me. Another grabbed my arm and pulled me into the centre; I felt pain in my dream, the feeling of his fingers gripping my arm. They started barking at me, a one-word question, “Age?” My throat sealed up and my tongue fell out of my mouth onto the floor. It crumbled into dust at my feet. “AGE AGE AGE?” they shouted.
“Fourteen!” I screamed, but no sound came out, I had no tongue! They all laughed at me and closed in around me… then I woke up, Praise Allah, I woke up but I was shaking and crying. I woke up Azzam with the noise and then everyone was crying. Mama pulled me into her arms and stroked my hair. “Yes,” she whispered, her mouth pressed to the top of my head, “fourteen, yes my sweet girl, fourteen.”
I wonder if Mo feels pain when I cry, I wonder if we are connected in some way and she can sense my thoughts from thousands of miles away. Why do I think these things? I am seventeen you know, I should be thinking of grown up things, like what I am going to say when that builder man comes looking for me; I need to practice some sharp words that will embarrass him and put him off me. I wish I had Mo with me, curled up in my coat; her little warm body would give me courage. But I have no one. My family are shells, their souls bled out long ago, whipped right out of them, lost on some foreign wind. But I refuse to be emptied. I shall think of Mo and be strong.
Hello, I am Aida and I’m fourteen years old.