Valletta, 10 July 2015 – Roxanne Borg, refugee lawyer for JRS Malta, describes a chance meeting with a little Syrian girl in one of Malta’s open centres for asylum seekers.
I first saw her from a distance, hanging onto her father’s hand and chatting as he walked and she skipped across the open space towards their temporary and makeshift home in the Open Centre. She wore a short black dress streaked with pink and orange stripes, and her long hair hung loose behind her back.
We crossed paths; the Jesuit who was accompanying us stopped to exchange a few words with her father, for they knew each other well. I bent down to her level, unsure of what to say to a little girl who had been through infinitely more, in the first few years of her life, than I have in my twenty-six.
The world looks different from a five-year-old’s eyes. Her father and the rest of the group I was with towered over us. I smiled, and said hello: she smiled back, and shyly offered me a greeting in return. I did not know what language to speak to this beautiful child; I heard the Jesuit speak to her father in Maltese, my native language. She speaks it too, I heard someone say in the background; most of the children in the centre do.
What a beautiful dress, I told her in Maltese. Her face lit up and she launched into an animated explanation of how she’d slept in it last night. Her father quickly explained that she’d fallen asleep and he hadn’t had the heart to wake her up just to change her into her bedclothes, so he’d let her sleep on. She recounted this story to me passionately, with much laughter: it’s not every day you get to sleep in a pretty dress, of course.
What’s your name, I said, telling her mine. Before I could ask anything else, she held out a little hand with five outstretched fingers. I gave a small laugh; so you’re five, I told her; what a big girl! She seemed to enjoy the compliment, although she solemnly assured me that she was going to grow up soon enough. I asked if she would grow to be as tall as her father. She considered my question seriously for a few seconds, and then informed me that she would definitely grow taller.
I re-joined my group, and we bade the girl and her father farewell. She waved goodbye tirelessly, blowing us kisses. It is hard to quench the enthusiasm and the laughter of a child: they shine like the summer sun.
It was only once we’d departed that I realised that I’d left a little piece of my heart behind.