First runner up
Dust in his eyes. Dirt under his nails. Debris in his hair. As the smoke rose and the ash settled, Amjad made the decision then and there that he had to get out. He had been sitting on the remains of a low wall, two blocks from where the maternity hospital was hit. Shrapnel had bounced up the road towards him as if someone had spilled a giant bag of red hot marbles. He had felt the shockwave from the blast wash over his face like warm air from a bread oven. Apart from the ringing in his ears, an eerie hush enveloped the street as the sound of the helicopter faded away. The silence was broken after what felt like an eternity by the wail of a mourning mother. Another woman joined in the heartbroken chorus, and then another, until it was not clear how many mothers were wailing.
They are the lucky ones, mused Amjad, they had survived even if their new-borns had not.
Ethics? Legality? Academic integrity? What troubled her most? Sally McCarthy leaned back on her chair in her tiny office at the University of Brighthelmstone and contemplated her next move. She stared out of the window, past the raindrops as they trickled downwards, towards the trees beyond. On her desk was her laptop, a half-eaten sandwich and a messy pile of papers. A cup of cold coffee sat making a perfect circle on a book about the life and work of Eleanor Roosevelt. As she watched a dog walker battle the grim weather in the parkland adjacent to the campus, she recalled the details of the phone call she had just had and what it meant for the work she must do.
As people rushed passed him to put out the flames and start digging for survivors, Amjad thought about the consequences of his decision to leave. He was a thoughtful child, he always had been. He thought about the life he used to have. Now it didn’t seem real, like it belonged to someone else. He thought about his family. He missed them every day. His father, with whom he shared a name, had been killed in the first weeks of the war by sniper fire at an anti-government rally. His relatives had tried to reassure him it was just bad luck, but he wondered if his father’s fiery brand of politics had something to do with it. His sister Mariam had died a year later of a fever. The hospitals were full so she had stayed at home in bed, getting gradually weaker, until she slipped away. His mother Fatema had vanished. He returned home from school one day to find their apartment empty with no sign of her. The front door was left open, creaking in the wind. He had given up looking for her after a few weeks of futile searching. His last surviving family member was his elder brother Omar, who left home shortly after his mother had disappeared, to join one of the local militias. He could still picture Omar’s toothy grin as he waved at him from the back of a flatbed truck as it drove away in a cloud of dust and diesel fumes. Where his brother was now exactly, he could not say.
She had only been in her role for a few short months, but she was already feeling the pressure. She was behind on her targets, both in terms of research funding and work points. When an overburdened colleague had pushed the assignment from the Ministry of Aid and Development her way, muttering something about unrealistic expectations, she couldn’t believe her luck. The brief was to produce an evidence report on educating refugees. It would be used to inform official policy. Finally some work she could get her teeth into on a subject she felt passionately about! The topic had never been so pertinent. The geopolitical context was tense. Entire regions were engulfed in brutal fighting and bloodshed. It had all started when peaceful protests on street corners were quashed by paid thugs, resulting in violent uprisings. These quickly escalated into civil wars. The conflicts spilled over national borders like a toxic tide. As the fighting rumbled on, an unprecedented exodus of people left their homes, seeking safety, shelter and an escape from constant fear.
Amjad had floated the idea of fleeing the country to his brother over dinner one night. Omar was incensed, refusing to even contemplate leaving. This was home. Ancestors were buried here. Children’s children would grow up here, until it was their turn to be buried too. Stand and fight. Death or glory.
His eyes flashed with anger as he spoke. ‘We are at war. Wars have rules. Men in suits in countries you have never even heard of have committed their entire lives to establishing the rules for situations like this. If you are afraid, stay close to the school or even the hospital. Even the tyrant and his allies will not target such places. If he does stoop so low, the international community will not stand idle. Their retribution will be swift and unrelenting’. Amjad decided not to push the issue any further and agreed that his brother knew best. They finished their meal in silence. The next day Omar had volunteered to fight.
The advisor who had requested the work, Rupert Clarence-Boon, was a seasoned civil servant. His reputation as somewhat of a charming buffoon preceded him. However, he was also known for his ability to successfully navigate both the winding corridors of the Ministry and the political systems that operated behind its many closed doors. During the concept meeting, she had studied him intently. She decided he was a throwback to a bygone age, but also ruthlessly efficient. Someone not to be crossed. Living proof that the old boys’ club still ruled. She found his mannerisms stuffy and old fashioned. Despite her first impressions, she felt the meeting had gone well and the terms of reference were agreed. She left the Ministry feeling excited about the challenge that had been posed and eager to get to work.
Shortly after Omar had left home, Amjad’s school had been destroyed by an airstrike. He had overslept that morning and by the time he arrived it was all over. Twelve blanket covered bodies had already been laid out on the playground to a backdrop of a smouldering crater filled with rubble. Standing outside the school gates, he reflected how odd the neat lines of bodies looked in the context of such chaos and destruction. The final body count was 27, but 28 deaths were recorded. A boy from the year below was known to have arrived at school, but was unaccounted for. One of his blood-stained shoes had been found, and set aside to be sent to his parents. Two of the school’s five teachers were killed. The only building that remained standing on the site was the janitor’s shed in the corner.
She had set about the assignment diligently, gathering and reviewing all the evidence she could find. Despite her expertise in the subject, she still found herself surprised at the number of refugee crises to occur in recent history. How little we have learned from past mistakes, she thought. She worked late into the evenings, fuelled by innumerable cups of coffee and the occasional biscuit liberated from the communal kitchen. She poured her heart and soul into it. After months of hard work, she was delighted with the finished paper.
Amjad rose early. He picked up a small bag packed with a few belongings and left. He walked past the hole where his school had been. He walked past his neighbours’ houses. He walked past the smoking wreck of the maternity hospital. He walked past the local market. He walked past the graveyard where his family and ancestors were buried. He walked past the suburbs and out of town. He didn’t look back. He could feel the warm rays of the rising sun on the back of his neck as he went. For the first time in months, he felt hope.
Clarence-Boon had written to her to acknowledge receipt of the report, but requested an urgent call. ‘Thanks for the call’, he said, when she phoned him. ‘Yes, we received the report, thanks for your efforts. We are happy with it, but you must understand, it needs some…further work. How can I put this? All references that allude to refugees having a right to an education have to be removed’. For Sally, a moment of confusion was followed by a surge of anger. Every person on earth had a right to an education. This was made very clear in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, The Refugee Convention, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and many other internationally recognised agreements. She argued her point passionately, until she was cut short. ‘Miss McCarthy, I am well aware of all those conventions, but the long and the short of it is that we cannot enforce those rights in the current context. Indeed, at present we cannot guarantee anything to anyone in that particular theatre. We have neither the financial means, the strategic influence, nor the political clout. I trust you understand why including anything on rights puts us in a rather tight spot? We would have a duty to act. No, it cannot happen. I am glad we have reached an agreement on this sensitive subject. I shall look forward to receiving the revised report. Good day Miss McCarthy’.
He walked for ten days before he crossed the invisible line in the sand marking safety. It would have been nine, had he not hid for a morning in a thorn bush as helicopters roared overhead. His stomach was empty and his supply of water nearly gone. He saw tents and staggered towards them. His stumbling advance became a frantic retreat when from the direction of the tents a convoy of vehicles came racing towards him. He tried to run, but his worn shoes and aching limbs made it hard. They easily caught up with him and he feared the worst. His tears quickly turned to laughter. To his relief, it was not guns the people carried, but bottles of water and clipboards. They brought him to the camp where he was given food and drink. A doctor checked him over, prodding his ribs and looking at his swollen tongue. He was asked what felt like a thousand questions and even had his photo taken. Finally, he was given a clean blanket and somewhere to rest. As soon as he lay down, he fell into a deep sleep.
The week that followed the heated exchange was somewhat of a disaster. She had received a reminder from the bank about her unpaid credit card bill and someone had broken the mirror off her car. To top off a bad week, she had been humiliated at a departmental meeting. The Head of Research declared the university could not afford to carry anyone, while glaring accusingly right at her. Back in her pokey office, Sally held her head in her hands, deep in thought. Pushing a pile of well-thumbed papers out of the way, she picked up the book on Eleanor Roosevelt for inspiration. She had been using a case study on educating refugees, produced by a humanitarian organisation, as a bookmark. She glanced briefly at the photo of the young boy named Amjad on the front, before putting it aside and delving into a section on where human rights should begin. With a sense of purpose that had evaded her for days, she put down the book, turned on her laptop and started work.
About the author
Dr Stephen Thompson is currently a research officer at the Institute of Development Studies and has spent 10 years working in the field of international development. His research interests include health, education, disability and nutrition.