Last night on the news, slotted in between Election fever and Tax Dodgers, was the usual News Report in a War Zone. We could be forgiven for not noticing what war zone, if we took our eyes off the TV for a minute, make a cup of tea. It could be Ukraine, Syria, Iraq. It could be Nigeria, Boko Haram’s latest outrage, now stretching into Chad. Nigerian soldiers are interviewed in silhouette, afraid to speak out against their government, anonymously saying they have no arms. A group of refugees sit in a camp, their experiences translated, some with harrowed eyes withdrawing into silence. The few stories we hear, we have heard over and over. Battles, homes burnt, murder, abduction, slavery. Another two hundred souls overboard in the Mediterranean Sea escaping horrors like these. Amongst these stories is that of a small boy aged around 11 or 12, difficult to tell. It’s difficult for him to tell his story. The interviewer mentions his parents, not him. What he does say say, however, breaks the tiredness we feel watching horror after horror from the safety of our sofas. ‘I wish I had remembered to bring my bicycle and my shoes’, he says. His bicycle and his shoes. The images of these normal objects impacted on me. I’ve spent all night thinking about it. Why? Many people have bicycles and shoes. Many don’t. But place this boy, this handsome, smooth-faced boy, sitting in a group of haunted refugees in some strange dusty place, where women finger their veils and stutter their experiences; this boy’s life suddenly becomes real. Who are these people who will deprive a boy of his bicycle and his shoes? A boy with a bicycle and shoes is going somewhere. He has a life. He is growing up. Given the climate, he could become a businessman, a scientist, a teacher, an ecologist. This boy may have only used his bicycle for errands or to go to school, but he could also have spent endless magical moments day-dreaming on that bicycle. Riding without his hands on the handlebars, feet up, doing wheelies, standing on the pedals, somersaulting over pot-holes, balancing his mother’s shopping, his baby sister. He could have been a whizz with a spanner and a pump, wheeling it into the cycle repair shop to have a valve repaired, been told off by his mum and dad for causing them expense. His bicycle could have been a horse or a sports car, as he showed off his frolics to his mates or to girls. It might have been a gift for passing his exams. I know this story because it’s mine. My bicycle was my pride and joy. From the age of 11 I was off, wheeling, into the world, any excuse to escape my claustrophobic world of parents and chores, homework and siblings. I was a driver, a cowgirl, Annie get your gun. It was the sixties, flowers and nail polish on my toes, sandals. And let’s think about shoes for a minute. Shoes that mold to your feet making them distinctively yours. Each pebble indented in the sole, each lace ripped, each toe scuffed; all yours. Children in shoe shops spill more tears than Alice did in Wonderland. They are too tight, too big, too ugly, too …wrong. I have dragged tear-stained children out of shoe shops feeling like a wicked mother. I have escorted princesses out of shoe shops clasping a box containing exquisite beauty, or a child simply wearing them, prancing like Dukes down Main Street. That boy’s shoes bore memories of his passage as no others will. Why wasn’t he wearing them? Was he asleep when he ran? I can remember having to spend Saturday afternoons polishing my best shoes. The memory of those shoes and that bicycle will haunt him for the rest of his life.
So what can we do? Become soldiers or missionaries ourselves? Adopt them all, those refugee children who sit in dusty camps with strangers, confused as to the very nature of men murdering human beings just because they can? Perhaps on this Valentine’s Day, with its realms of corrugated love, the millions spent on false messages and blood-red roses, the millions rushing to see Fifty Shades of Grey, those escaping the horrors of the world by lounging on warm beaches or in romantic hotels perhaps could spare one minute to think of love itself, and empathy. Stop seeing refugees as a wave of ‘others’ throwing themselves at ‘our’ borders. For all the thousands being made homeless, or slipping beneath the waves in sight of Lampedusa – perhaps we can think of them as individuals, like that little boy who once owned a bicycle and a pair of shoes.