I was about 8 years old the first time my Mom and Dad took me to Colorado. I remember one day of the trip in particular, as I had been looking forward to it for months. I remember the car ride, staring out at the craggy browns of the Colorado mountains and the mesmerizing contrast of the crisp blue sky. I remember the entrance to the “search for your own gold” mine. To an eight year old, the world had never seemed more full of potential. Determination, if infused with a little bit of luck, seemed a superpower.
In the mine’s entrance, everything was made of wood, and sliced oil drums lined the walls, each filled with some variety of glittery stones. In retrospect I can’t believe my father spent all that money for us to hack away at ordinary granite with rusty, cheap, pick axes. Our collective findings perhaps added up to a few gold flakes, not enough to break even on the price of admission. My father would surely spend the price of admission again, though, if it would bring a smile to his sons’ faces.
That day, I squinted like I’ve never squinted before, scouring every inch of rock for that glimmer or gold, bobbing my head from angle to angle hoping to catch a reflection of light. I searched with energy, with fervor, and with excitement, and sure enough—more than once—I spotted that orange-yellow flicker. I had struck gold.
Eighteen years later I found myself squinting the same way, this time from the window of a plane far above the Aegean Sea. Again I was searching for a glimmer of a bright orange light—this time representing something more valuable than gold. Human life.
As our plane approached the rocky shores of Lesvos, I squinted with an admittedly voyeuristic fervor, wondering if the sunlight would reflect off the orange life jackets that infamously dot the beaches of the island. Indeed, as the plane descended, the cold morning sun highlighted the deep orange of hundreds of left vests, each one belonging to a human being who had washed ashore—one way or another—on the little island sometime over the past months. Squinting, I did not strike gold. I struck something far worse, something my eight year old self did not yet know, and that is the complex cocktail of embarrassment and horror.
One of those vests belonged to a boy named Prince. Our feet—Prince and I—first touched the soil of Lesvos at roughly the same time. My well-rested feet stepped onto tarmac. His shriveled feet stepped into a shallow sea. I was taken in a mini van to my 19th century mansion hotel. He was taken in a mini van to a tent filled with cots and new socks. Our arrivals were disgustingly dissimilar.
Prince is from Afghanistan, a Dari-speaker from a village West of Kabul. He was holding a baby girl when we met at the MSF reception center near Molyvos. “Sister?” I asked, aware that my presence was deeply problematic, but needing to do something better than standing in a corner. “No. Daughter my uncle,” he replied, signaling to a man I imagine was his uncle a few cots down. He handed off the baby to a young girl, his niece, then drew his thumb up to his neck, making a throat-slitting motion. “Sisters. Brother. Mama. Daddy.” He made the motion again, reinforcing the answer to a question I really did not mean to ask. I sat, blank in the head, as I learned to do by accident over three years in Za’atri Camp.
Prince got up for a moment. He returned quickly with dry socks to replace the plastic shopping bags that currently lined his feet. “Cold?” he asked me. “No” I said. He pointed towards the sun, “after ship, no cold,” he said. Ninety minutes earlier he had been on a boat carrying 150 Afghanis and Syrians. The boat had filled with water slowly as it crossed the eternal 5km from Turkey until a Greek ship came and transferred the passengers, bringing them to the north shore of the island. Syrian Christians from Hasakeh, standing next to Prince, said that they had paid over 2,000 Euro per person to make the journey. I began to ask the Syrians another question, but as I did an Orthodox priest on our team walked by, and the two ran over to him, reaching out their hands to his. They quickly turned to tears, as they recounted their journey to the priest.
“Play football?” Prince asked me. I nodded the same lie I’ve lied 1,000 times. “Barcelona?” I asked. He raised his eyebrows and shook his head, putting his hand to his heart. “Madrid. Real Madrid.”
He began to speak to me in Dari, and I listened. I understood alhamdullilehs and Germany, inshallahs. Germany, inshallah. Surely secular Europe has little idea how many times her name has been spoken in beseeching prayer over the past two years. Prince eagerly called over Siddiq—25, also from Afghanistan—a pharmacy student with impeccable English. Prince introduced me. “Ah, Mike. Michael. Michael Jackson,” Siddiq chuckled at me. I have resigned to this trope, because working in various languages, a universal name with an unsavory comparison is better than a complicated name with no comparison at all. “You know, I would have died an hour ago if the volunteers did not come” he added with the disconcerting nonchalance that you often hear in the aftermath of overwhelming trauma.
We continued to chat, waiting until someone was told to go somewhere else. After a few minutes, Prince and Siddiq were whisked away to prepare for their journey to the registration camps of Moria. As they were handed a bag of dry clothes, I wondered just how many people they have met along their way, how many nights they have slept unsure where their next night would be. I wondered about their determined vulnerability—having left a home to be subject to unknowable comments and directions, scores of people telling them when to stand, when to sit, where to find food, and where to sleep—all in pursuit of something worth dying for, some motivation almost no one I know can fathom. I thought of my childhood, of the Colorado mines, and of Le Petit Prince, though the power of its metaphor did not sink in until days later.
In the harbor of Mytilene, an assortment of orange life jackets bob up and down in the wake of passing fishing boats. Like litter, the lifejackets are the result of ignorance, negligence, and arrogance. They represent both consequence and risk for all who choose to acknowledge and for those who choose to look away. Decades of conflict and inequality have birthed a risky game which tests the very notion of what it means to be human, which forces us to reconsider what it means to be moral agents, and which illuminates the fragility of our supposedly evolved, inclusive, rights-based systems.
In the story of The Little Prince, the boy encounters a host of men as he journeys from planet to planet—a King, an arrogant man, a geographer, a drunkard, a lamplighter. Reading the story on my way back from Lesvos I came across this passage, with the dampened smile of Prince vivid in my mind:
“Ah! Here is a subject,” exclaimed the king, when he saw the little prince coming.
And the little prince asked himself: “How could he recognize me when he had never seen me before?”
He did not know how the world is simplified for kings. To them, all men are subjects.
“Approach, so that I may see you better,” said the king, who felt consumingly proud of being at last a king over somebody.
The little prince looked everywhere to find a place to sit down; but the entire planet was crammed and obstructed by the king’s magnificent ermine robe. So he remained standing upright, and, since he was tired, he yawned.
“It is contrary to etiquette to yawn in the presence of a king,” the monarch said to him. “I forbid you to do so.”
“I can’t help it. I can’t stop myself,” replied the little prince, thoroughly embarrassed. “I have come on a long journey, and I have had no sleep . . .”
“Ah, then,” the king said. “I order you to yawn. It is years since I have seen anyone yawning. Yawns, to me, are objects of curiosity. Come, now! Yawn again! It is an order.”
The little Prince I met in Molyvos may be in Idomeni by now. He may be in Moria, waiting in line for soup lovingly prepared by selfless island residents. He may be in Turkey, bruised and confused, searching for another road into a world that, for kings, is so simple, but for him, is anything but.