How are you doing?
I hope you’re getting space and headspace, air and exercise under lockdown. It’s not easy, is it?
I’m under a kind of house arrest myself, with three 18-year-olds – three of my own kids – who are lovely and everything but really don’t want to be here. They should be hurtling headlong into the next thing: A-levels, a summer of festivals, a job or the start of university. Instead, they’re pacing the house like caged tigers, watching Tiger King.
Their lives are suspended. They can’t move, like so many of us. And we know why – we know that lives are being saved and we’re grateful for those who have come through this and we mourn, bitterly, those who have been lost – but that doesn’t mean we don’t struggle and feel confined.
And I’ve been thinking about another teenager, one I met just before all this happened. She lives along the coast from me and her life is like some kind of ancient story that starts: “Once upon a time there was a girl, who lived in a troubled land …”
The girl – whose name was Zahra – and her mother had to escape. They walked a long way and begged a ride a longer way and paid for a sea crossing that nearly killed them and they found themselves in a camp with other people who had lost their homes, their livelihoods, their friends and relatives but not their will to survive. It was a dangerous place to be a girl, just coming into womanhood. So her mother gave what little money she had left to Zahra and told her to strike out for a better place, where she could be safe and find others from her distant family, maybe; and make a life and perhaps one day soon, send for her mother and rescue her from the camp. Make her safe too.
So Zahra set off again, by road and sea and on foot, travelling hundreds of miles across a whole continent. She faced down dangers, escaped men who tried to trap her, evaded the authorities.
Honestly, if we perceived people like Zahra as being like us, we would tell their lives very differently, like stories not just of suffering but of adventure and survival. Maybe that’s what I’m doing now. She wanted me to tell it for her, while she prepares to tell it herself.
When Zahra came to the last great barrier, the last challenge she had to overcome on a quest that had now gone on for months, she looked out across the water and wondered how to cross.
She tried to jump on the back of a lorry that was setting off for the other side on a ferry. She fell off. She tried again and was caught by police with dogs. They were rough.
Then Zahra stood on the beach on a clear day and she could see the white cliffs on the other side, as close as home still was in her head. “I can do this,” she said to herself, not being fully aware that she was looking at one of the busiest and most dangerous stretches of water in the world.
But it felt very different that night as the rain lashed into her face and the wind howled and the waves crashed and she was faced with a little rubber boat that someone had just blown up, there on the beach. Too many people were trying to get on.
“I can’t do this!” she said. “I’ll drown.” But the man she had paid just shrugged and said he would not give her money back and it was all the money she had in the world and she was shaking with fear but there was no other way so Zahra got on the boat.
The wind dropped. They made it to the other side. Others have not. Lives have been lost in that crossing, maybe more than we know because it all happens in secret. It’s happening even now.
“We were very wet and very cold,” she told me. The police were very kind. She wasn’t expecting that, after all her other experiences.
She found warmth and help and shelter. Zahra lives by the sea now, learning English, hoping to be useful. Hoping to send for her Mum, one day. She’s studying hard and has a dream. To fly. She wants to be a pilot. And get this: somebody she met was so convinced that they found a way for her to have a couple of lessons. She’s a natural. It’s hard not to believe that she will do it.
Zahra has come such a long way. She’s come to a country where some people shout about sending people like her home. But others see her spirit. They know that everything has changed in this strange time of suffering. The first have become last, or some of them anyway. The mighty, fighting for breath on ventilators, are nursed by people who have come from afar like Zahra, the very migrants they recently said were too many. Maybe now they’ll realise now that those they said were alien, to be repelled as if there was a war on, are actually us. And we are them. Is that too much to hope for?
It’s hard to tell a story about travel when we’re all confined to where we are. It’s hard to think of flying when the sky is a deeper blue for the lack of jet trails and the air is cleaner for the lack of cars and we’re getting a glimpse of how beautiful the world could be without our noise and our pollution.
So let’s take flight as a metaphor. For movement. For freedom. For getting past this. For taking the best of this moment, learning from it, adapting, surviving and working out how to be, now. That’s what my caged teenagers are having to do and you probably are too.
We’re told we’re not alone: that God flies with us, alongside us, within us; and when we’re weary and have to rest, she shelters us with her wings. May that be true.
Seriously. I pray that for you.
As for Zahra, after all she’s been through, after such an epic journey, she actually believes she can and will fly. And when I hear her say it, so do I.