“Aliyah thumped a stick on the ground as she pointed a torchlight at us. Her facial features formed a steely look of bravery that none of us expected. We had requested her help in a voluntary project, and there she was, all ready and enthusiastic to stand up for justice. She shone like an angel in the way the luminous torchlight reflected on her face, and at the same time like a guardian holding a stick firmly to her side. To this day, her vision makes my body tingle with an overwhelming sense of awe and compassion.”
I had been visiting refugee camps around Jordan and Lebanon during that time. The countries, as generous and peaceful as they were, had become a homeland for waves of desperate refugees from Syria and other war torn countries. The majority of refugees had to leave behind all of their possessions, catapulting themselves into an area where misery and wretchedness awaited them. Emergency shelters, which were more suited to incarceration rather than humanitarianism, meant for a few days, but were housing broken families for several years. There were many humanitarian organisations like UNHCR working tirelessly but unfortunately they were underfunded, under resourced, and lacked imagination and ideas.
After first visiting refugee camps a couple of years ago I saw women and children in deplorable and unsafe living conditions. The makeshift shelters were cold, damp and without any light, or electric to charge their mobile phones, lanterns and unable to heat for the freezing nights. The shelters had no water supply or toilet facilities, with children having to walk hundreds of yards in the middle of the night in the pitch dark. I struggled to understand why the very basic of living conditions were unavailable to these people in the twenty first century, when we were sending men to the moon for tourism.
We set out on a mission to design a new shelter that provided basic dignity to refugee families. A shelter that is engineered with water supply from rain water and low levels of electric to charge mobile phones and provide light at night through a roof fixed wind turbine and solar panels. The shelters would have better insulation and be engineered to fit together as a jigsaw, with adjoined toilets creating safe communal areas. We had also value engineered these shelters to be half of the price of the tin shelters currently purchased.
My humanitarian aspirations were shared with one of my dearest donors, a remarkable partner who was one of the major reasons for making our refugee shelter projects come true. As soon as we set foot in Jordan, we headed toward some nearby camps in the area. We planned to first meet with three local Jordanian families to get a better understanding of the local issues and how Jordanians saw the refugees. These families had expressed a desire to help the refugee families. The first two families nodded in eagerness to be part of the refugee shelter programme. The third family was living at the end of that marginalised area, and how was I to know that this meeting would be life changing for both of us. We saw children playing outside, running about the pebbly sand under the heat of the sun. When a woman called out to invite us in her home, I could not easily guess her age, her eyes were eyes of an innocent child, vivid and lustrous, and yet the bony structure of her face revealed a women that was carrying many burdens, but she stood lean and graceful.
They lived in a white painted shipping container; the cramped space inside put the place under such unbearable heat. It felt to me like walking into an oven of airless suffocating heat as we moved through that metallic house. Making our way through three shabby hand hung curtains, we noticed the floor mattresses that lay in each division. I knew that a lot of people had to live in the same shelter, but the number of mattresses was too many, and the conditions of the shipping container were deplorable.
We seated ourselves on one of the mattresses at the end of the container, and the woman sat opposite us. The silent smile on her face expressed such a reserved gratitude. I noticed the modest white scarf that was wrapped around her hair, reflecting a humble Muslim mother in her most responsible stage of her life. Although this woman had more responsibility on her shoulders than her soul could bear. Her shoulders were sunk low, and her thin figure had the weight of being so overworked. Even when the silence between us grew a bit longer and awkward, she let out a slight laugh to emphasise her happiness to see us, and the exhaustion of her breath while speaking was undeniable. She said I have prepared some food for you, in a motherly voice, glancing sideways at the small old floor stove a few feet away. My donor and I frenziedly told her not to fetch anything, feeling so ashamed we have imposed ourselves on a family who could barely afford to feed their own children. But, her reaction was a seriously offended expression. She went very decidedly to the stove and brought the food despite our ashamed protests. As she served us, she told us that it was not polite to refuse food from your Muslim host and sister.
It’s some of the values I have learned from my parents, she said. The meal was two bowls of boiled wheat seeds with some authentic Palestinian herb seasoning. I held the chipped bowl in my palms hesitantly, staring blankly at the food. As an extremely fussy eater, I was rarely attracted to any food except which I chose with care. But, the situation didn’t allow rejecting it. Don’t worry. It’s Halal; she cut through my thoughts with a motherly tone.
I tried a few spoons as I listened to her story. Maybe it was the warmth of the company or the magical combination of the food ingredients, but the taste of the wheat seeds really did dissolve down my throat with a pleasurable flavour I haven’t tried in decades. I then listened whilst she spoke to my donor about her past, I had a strong feeling that the company was, in fact, the very magical ingredient. I asked what do you normally prepare for Eid festivals; she smiled and said I add some sweet spices to the wheat seeds, and said it makes it delicious and sufficient to fill our bellies. She added as per our customs we made more than we eat so if any unexpected neighbours came by, we would be blessed with them joining us. With an adventurous smile she said, is it true that at Christmas in England you now have a three-bird roast? My donor said yes some people have pheasant, chicken and duck, to which she replied nothing is enough to fill your bellies! We very much understood the depth behind her words.
Named Aliyah, the woman was of a Palestinian origin. She had been living with her parents, grandparents, and children in a beautiful picturesque farmhouse in Palestine. The family was multigenerational, with great bonds and intimacy that held them together in a land that long forefathers owned for generations. With a father who was a genetic scientist, Aliyah had all the family love she desired. She spoke so highly of him, and even as she spoke, brightness in her eyes shimmered each time she mentioned him. He was the one who encouraged her to persevere until she achieved a first class honours in philosophy and political sciences. When her passion for knowledge grew more, she wanted to be a medium to it; a teacher. But, torn between the instabilities of the countries and her studies, Aliyah suddenly witnessed the most unforgettable tragedy of her life, and it struck the family to the ground in utter despair. Aliyah’s father was murdered by the Israeli army. For her mother, in particular, it wasn’t so much that fate stole from her the closest person, but it was his absence that slowly drained the life out of her body. She grew weaker and couldn’t endure the sadness until she, too, passed away after a few months. Aliyah and her husband, in the end, were left to look after their children and immobile grandparents alone.
In front of us, Aliyah’s hands fidgeted tensely in her lap. Memories seemed to overwhelm her as she struggled to explain the injustice she had faced. The authorities for unjustified political reasons were seizing their land. She stood up against the allegations about her father’s affairs in the war. But, more tension built around her acts to defend her father. Her own children were put in danger, the armed forces and Israeli settlers lurked around the corner of their land, and eventually, death threats and government oppression forced out the family from their inherited land. Moving from one settlement to another, Aliyah tried to escape the hostilities, but she could no more sustain the family nor guarantee their safety. So, they reluctantly headed north, toward Jordan. She added that Great Britain was responsible for ripping the heart out of her motherland to please financial influencers, with a pause she said, how could they give away what wasn’t theirs to give.
The shipping container they got for themselves in Jordan barely accommodated the members of the family. With five children and four immobile grandparents, every few members were squeezed together on a couple of double mattresses, having muscle-spasm sleep and being exposed to very harsh weather conditions. To Aliyah, the local residents in Jordan weren’t kind to them either, we were not refugees and not Jordanians. Being forced to seeking some help from outside, the refugees were treated like beggars by them. It wasn’t just tragic to them that they had to see angry Jordanian faces, but also that they had to survive completely on their own. In the middle of listening to Aliyah narrate this; we were slightly surprised by the heavy steps that entered the shipping container. Looking to the entrance, we noted a male figure leisurely slide the three curtains aside as he moved toward us. He had broad shoulders and a fit physique, but appeared fairly aged with an unshaven beard. Aliyah’s expression had changed into a faint content at the appearance of her husband. He shook our hands saying salaam, and retreated to sit beside his wife to listen to our conversation.
I asked how much money do you receive to take care of your family turning to Aliyah, changing the topic to the critical issue. We receive 24 dollars for food and essentials, she answered. 24 dollars per day for all eleven of you my donor interjected with surprise. Smilingly, Aliyah answered no, 24 dollars a month. The words sliced through us to the bone. The amount of money literally meant that a family of eleven members had to feed and cloth themselves with around 80 cents a day. I looked back at the bowls she had offered us and realised that we had imposed ourselves on what was their children’s food. The idea made my heart twist with guilt. We sat there wondering if such a financial situation would ever suffice them for the days to come until we suddenly heard the sound of children cheering outside. They came in, half skipping and half running, in their jovial and childish nature. “Salam” was their Islamic greeting. I held the hand of a girl as I asked her about herself and her name. They were so adorable and well mannered, Aliyah sensed that I couldn’t stop smiling with affection.
Aliyah’s older children repeated stories that their mother told them, fond memories, of their lovely cottage back in Palestine with beautiful tall trees and fruit orchards where they all played together, (she didn’t want to pollute their minds with hatred so didn’t tell them of the bad men in uniforms, check-points and killings). Aliyah kept her children beautifully clean and tidy physically and spiritually, sewing their ripped clothes and filling the holes with patches. The children said they were learning science and mathematics at school, and they loved to teach their great-grandparents all that they learnt. The little girl, named Khadija, told me that she wanted to be a Queen. I laughed and asked her why. She said she saw pictures of Queen Rania on street posters and she was the most beautiful queen in the world, she said excitedly. I want to become a queen too, because then I would be able to buy toys for my brothers and sisters and the neighbouring children, and wear glittery gowns and the highest heel sandals. The innocence of her dreams was so adorable that we laughed together and listened to her go on. I would also buy for my Amma a new pair of shoes because her sandals have very big holes in them and are tied together with rope, and then cheekily smiled saying, that they are really stinky. Aliyah smiled and said to her daughter, these sandals have special magical powers, they make me fly, and that’s why I don’t want new ones.
Suddenly, our laughter subsided into an awkward silence and pause of expectancy. I cleared my throat and addressed Aliyah in a more professional manner. About our work, which we haven’t told you about yet. I looked at my donor with an encouraging expression then turned back my attention to her. Our mission is to make a difference with the helpless situation that the refugees are facing. We want to provide better living conditions and give refugees dignity by supplying shelters with, power, water, security and toilet facilities.
Aliyah’s eyes beamed with happiness. The enthusiasm motivated her to join in. I want to help you in this noble mission too she said. Aliyah nodded, already very supportive of our efforts. She gazed at us with a memory in her eyes and added. I already volunteer every night in the nearby refugee camp to escort people. Some women or children need to go to the toilets at night, and they are forced to walk several hundred yards in absolute darkness. A sudden gloom clouded her expression, we live with the fear of them being raped or abducted by trafficking gangs. Taken aback by this, we asked her if there had been any cases where rape or abduction actually occurred. And her answer came out of her mouth like a lump that had been stuck in her throat for so long. There have been so many cases that we have lost count. Tears glistened in her eyelashes like burning drops. It made us feel terrible, especially when she went on to narrate a few examples of such horrific cases where mothers still walked helplessly for months looking for their lost children. I couldn’t believe that after these people escaped the horrors of their home country, they arrived in a place where their safety was even more endangered.
I had heard stories of Aliyah’s heraldry in the refugee camps, I said to her that many people consider you an Angel. She replied, Alhamdulillah (Praise to god), but angels only walk in the sky, not on earth. Aliyah volunteered three to four hours per night to help protect the refugee families. It was even in someway funny to her how it fitted her routine perfectly since there was no room in the container during that time to sleep anyway. For her, this was a double blessing.
She let out a carefree sigh and told us more about how her routine worked. When she came back from her work, the time would perfectly meet the early fresh breath of the morning, which was the very time of prayers. She would go on her way to wake the children, take them to wash and clean them, then gather them to pray all together. She would then immediately step into her little kitchen “part” and cook some food for the children, while they would be engrossed in their schoolwork. After feeding them, Aliyah would take the children outside and make some space to take care of the elderly inside the container. It was all really tough for her of course, especially when there were completely inadequate facilities and resources, but Aliyah managed. When she finished all these tasks, she would then take three hours of well-deserved sleep to rest.
As we looked at her with mild surprise, Aliyah added that, in fact, this routine had been running for longer than she can remember, day in day out and with no exception. While she spoke to us, we noticed her husband silently with tears in his eyes; the look of helplessness on his face tore at our hearts. Though when Aliyah looked over at him, she seemed to take it all in with a brave heart. There was strength in the way she smiled, which made me think of her father.
What can you tell us about your father I asked her, interested in knowing what she had in common with him? Her eyes suddenly cleared with a brightness of immense pride. He was my star. He taught me how to play cricket and how to read and write. He taught us to stand up for the weak and stay true to the Prophet’s values. He taught us that even if you can’t help everyone; we all have the ability to help someone. She drew a deep breath and added: He loved us more than anyone in the entire world! I was beginning to see him in her character, both in strength, justice and compassion.
She continued with a spark, I can’t see our plight ever changing as powerful bankers are behind all the wars and atrocities in the world just to seize more and more wealth and power. Her eyes darted away as she said this, perhaps in anger or disgust, but no one could blame her after all that they went through. Turning her focus to me, she asked me about my work. I replied saying I’m simply trying to help with giving children and youth more opportunities, whilst also feeding and looking after my own family with advisory and consultancy work in the commercial field. Having been frustrated with the number of challenges around the world, I wanted to do my part, even if it was small. But, of course, it’s nothing compared to your courage.
Still, with a calm smile, she glanced over to my donor and asked him the same question. He replied with a soft sincere voice, not all bankers are bad people. He said, his face bearing an offended look. I beg to differ, she insisted calmly. Bankers make money out of exploiting markets and countries, creating wars, then benefitting from that instability, installing their own leaders, and lending at extortionate rates to the most vulnerable. In fact, bankers are definitely behind most, if not all wars and atrocities in the world.
I was an investment banker earlier in my life, my donor stated. Aliyah said I apologise if I hurt your feelings because that wasn’t my intention. But, I’m sorry what I said is the truth and nothing can change that. Though disturbed, my donor further explained, some people, not all, do good with their money. You can call it purification, or whatever you may choose to call it. But, that’s what I have been doing for over 35 years. Aliyah replied, I’m sorry but I can’t provide purification for intentional continuous harm, repenting and forgiveness is for past actions, not if you continue to do the same, maybe god is more gracious than me. But, let’s not argue while you are guests in my home. She said, nicely enough to settle the conversation into its previously warm air.
My donor’s face eased into a smile of agreement. So, what do you do now she asked, now curiously interested in who was supporting the refugee project. My family own one of the largest alcohol and beverage manufacturing companies. So now you poison people, the cycle just goes round and round, came her fast reply. And it struck my donor to dead silence. He looked over at her with a pained face, his eyes wavering with a confused shame.
He rose from the mattress and left the container silently. But it didn’t take him long before he returned with a tear in his eyes and went to give Aliyah the warmest hug. I had never seen him give a hug that was so full of affection and remorse. He said my daughter, never lose this gift and purity that you have in your heart, your father will be looking down very proud of you. He whispered over her shoulder as he hugged her, I pray that one day my children have an ounce of the values that you have.
With a grateful heart, my donor sat back next to me. I saw a light of purity rekindle in his eyes as he looked over at Aliyah now. I didn’t think a visit to refugees camps had in its possession so much life and wisdom. I would like to volunteer with you, Aliyah offered, clasping her hands together thrillingly.
Do you have any resources and tools to do this I asked her? She immediately stood up from the bed and jumped behind the curtain. We heard one small noise as she rummaged through things before she returned with a lit-up torch in one hand and a long stick in the other. These are all the tools I need. If I see someone who wants to harm children, I will shine the torchlight in their eyes and bash them with my stick. We all cried with laughter as she held the tools threateningly in her hands. Although, her tall stance really did send a shudder down our spines.
Eventually, we came to terms with her about the nature of our project. If you were selected, we would provide you with a mobile phone and a nominal monthly allowance of 300 dollars per month. I went to explain, though I was already certain that we would select her, no doubt. Aliyah replied, I do not want to take your mobile phone and money; she broke in with a stern tone, surprising us once more. Because none of my neighbours have these, and this will create division amongst us. Her lips tightened in a moment of thought, then she laughed knowingly. This is exactly what the west do; create a divide and rule custom, well we have our own customs here, we live and eat like our neighbours, this was the customs of our Prophet (peace be upon him).
We did not want to add something, till she suggested an alternative proposition. You can pay the monthly allowance towards books and I can finally use my education to teach women and children. If my neighbours’ children are only able to eat wheat, then the same wheat is good enough for my children, Alhamdulillah. We shared a moment of silence as our smiles appreciated her unwavering sense of equality and justice. And I‘m sorry to say that we won’t take the money or mobile phone if they are from a banker or proceeds from alcohol sales. My donor said nothing, which led her to restate her earlier point. I’m sorry but despite what many people say, I don’t believe you can purify money that intentionally harms and kills people.
I said to her, how could we contact her. She said that would be no problem if we contacted the local phone holders and arranged a time to call. In fact she added, It would be better if you gave some mobile phones and SIM cards to the phone holders so that they use them to coordinate calls between the desperate refugees and their lost relatives, but please please, she looked at me and said find another way to fund these projects.
We rose from the bed to leave after the long conversation, feeling as though parts of us were washed pure. There were certainly plenty of wise lessons that I learned from the meeting, and to this day, I still feel Aliyah’s bravery and justice is like a planted seed in my heart. Subhan Allah (Praise be to God), every time I face challenges of the world, the seed grows with the thought from Aliyah ‘‘we can’t help everyone, but we can all help someone.’’
Aliyah is an Arabic name. It is the feminine of the name Ali, meaning “high” and “exalted”. If there was ever an experience that taught us the strength of a women, mother, wife and daughter, this was it. We salute Aliyah the Torch Angel fighting for true justice and equality.