Zahra in the mirror

Zahra is a four year old girl from Afghanistan, who has been moving from camp to camp for so long that she doesn’t remember her life before that.

UNICEF Serbia/2016

11 July 2016

She has journeyed several thousand kilometres and spent months in refugee camps in Turkey and Greece.

Now she is counting her last days in a makeshift refugee camp on the Serbian-Hungarian border.

If she and her family are lucky, in a few days they will be staying in some new camp on their way to Western Europe, somewhere between Szeged and Budapest.

Zahra is a four year old girl from Afghanistan, who has been moving from camp to camp for so long that she doesn’t remember her life before that.

She does not remember Afghanistan where she was born or her house. And she has never had long hair.

By the time she was old enough to let her hair grow, Zahra was living in makeshift conditions, often sleeping on the ground. And that means the sun, rain, and lice.

Therefore Zahra has short hair. And looks like a boy.

Yet she is a real girl. Zahra likes to look at herself in the mirror; she often rests her head on her shoulder and winks at herself.

The one mirror in the camp stands near an improvised tap, and the water runs into a little canal which leads into the nearby forest.

The canal is filled with dirty water and scraps of soap that no one dares to remove. The soap and water make bubbles and a rainbow forms when the sun breaks through the leaves of the surrounding trees.

Zahra does not look at the rainbow. She looks at herself in the mirror and often glances towards a small door in the fence, where Hungarian police officers sporadically appear to allow a small number of refugees and migrants to cross into Hungary.

Near the tap is an improvised shower. Four blankets are draped over the branches so that people stranded on no-man’s land can have, at least an appearance of privacy.

The blankets are dirty and heavy, saturated by the water from the shower and the mud, which flies as soon as the water hits the ground.

Zahra has just come out with her mother from this shabby looking shower. Her short hair dries in the sun. She puts on the same clothes she wore earlier and doesn’t seem to mind that she does not have a set of fresh clothes.

It's not the most important thing in the world. She looks at the little door in the fence. That is important.

Heavy rays of sunshine have been drying the earth from the previous night’s rain. And yet some mud remains and gets stuck in shoes.

Cracks appear where the soil is thin and the earth dries in lumps.

A white jeep is coming along one such dirt road which leads to Zahra’s camp. Just as it appears that the vehicle has moved to a dry part of the road, one can hear the tortured sounds from the engine and the screeching of the tires against the mud.

Somehow, the vehicle manages to pass along the road and reach the camp using tire tracks left behind by a tractor.

It’s a vehicle that is packed with food and hygiene products. Humanitarian workers distribute precious packages.

Gratitude is expressed in many ways; some bow their heads, others shake hands or place hands over their hearts.

The eyes and these gestures speak volumes, much more than any translator ever could.

As the last box is pulled from the vehicle, children are lining up in front of the jeep because they are used to doing that. Life in refugee camps has taught them to wait.

The box is full of supplies provided by UNICEF, thanks to the generous donation by the Government of Japan. Summer polo shirts. New and clean, still in wrappers.

A bearded middle-aged man, who was once a refugee himself, is now helping them. He approaches Zahra and gives her a black T-shirt.

She accepts it, and then looks at the man and points to the red T-shirt in his other hand.

She’s a girl after all. He understands and hands Zahra a red T-shirt.