by Miriam English

This is actually chapter 16 of my book Prescription. Like a number of chapters in that book, it is self-contained and can stand by itself. I often direct people to it to get them to understand the problem of refugees from a fresh perspective, so I decided to add it here to make it easier for people to access.

His mother was shaking his shoulder in the dark, whispering urgently, "Jamal! Wake up. Get dressed quickly but don't turn the lights on. Use your torch, but don't shine it on the windows or walls. Be quiet and fast." She left quickly and he could hear her in his sister's room waking her.

He rubbed his eyes and got out of bed, alarmed at the fear his mother gave off.

He was dressed and pulling on his boots when his father came in and whispered, "Son, our family is in great danger. I need to you be as sensible as possible. You must take the strongest clothes you have, and the most useful things. Leave everything else. We must only take what we can carry, and we can't carry much because we have a long way to go and must travel fast. You have five minutes. I'm sorry, son."

Jamal was only fourteen, but felt like he was an adult. He didn't need to wonder why this was happening. He'd seen the tensions building in the community in the last couple of days. He'd heard what was happening in the north and seen his parents speak in hushed, fearful tones about it. For weeks he'd known his father had been attempting to get passports for them so that they might leave and go elsewhere -- somewhere that people didn't enjoy hating others so much. There was no need to think about what things he considered most valuable. He'd already rehearsed this in his mind many times. His handheld computer was at the top of a very short list. He'd already fully charged it, smeared it with grease, and put it inside a plastic bag. Other than a combo earphone/microphone, he concentrated on clothing, taking mostly things that would be comfortable and long-wearing -- nothing with bright colors. He put his small computer in his shirt pocket and buttoned it in. The earphone lead went around the back of his neck where it would be hidden by his hair. At Kara's insistence he'd bought a small, folding solar panel about a month ago. He saw the sense in that now. The socket at the back of his wind-up torch could be used to recharge the computer, but a solar panel was silent and spared his torch.

He went to help his nine-year-old sister, Lili, pack. He'd already discussed with her about what was important and what wasn't. She was keeping well to what they'd chosen and was almost ready.

Their mother returned, and she looked surprised and proud of them that they were packed and had readied themselves so quickly and calmly.

The three of them went through the dark house to the kitchen where father was packing dried food. He buckled the backpack closed and slung it over his shoulders. He handed Jamal some packets of dried fruit and hard biscuits for his own pockets. Jamal's parents hugged and then turned to Jamal and his sister. Mother lifted Lili and perched her on her hip.

Father whispered, "Quietly now, we go out the back door and the gate at the bottom of the garden. We keep to the back streets and move as fast as possible. No noise, and use the torches as little as you can. I go first, and Jamal, you are rear-guard."

Jamal said, "Father, we need to avoid the main bridge. It's dangerous there."

At Father's raised eyebrows Jamal indicated his earphone and said, "I'm monitoring what's happening."

His father shared a proud smile with Mother and nodded. "We'll use the footbridge further down the river."

As they scurried out into the darkness Jamal felt a little guilty at taking credit for knowing about the bridge. It was Kara who was monitoring things, not him. He would simply relay her messages.

The gate turned noiselessly on its hinges. Under instruction from Kara he'd oiled it carefully a couple of days ago.

They moved silently into the alley, closing the gate carefully behind them, then hurrying away.

For hours they walked in the darkness, occasionally having to divert around troublespots when Kara would alert Jamal and he'd tell his parents of the danger ahead. He wanted to tell them about Kara, but he doubted his parents would understand that an artificial intelligence lived in the computer hidden in his shirt pocket. While not actually technophobic, they felt computers were a passing phase, just overly complicated toys, and refused to even look at webpages. His father was fond of pointing out that books had stood the test of time, serving mankind for thousands of years. Both his parents loved books and it must have hurt them deeply to leave their all their cherished volumes -- a couple of thousand books lining the walls of their livingroom. He had inherited their love of knowledge and he'd brought with him, in a tiny thumbdrive, twice as many electronic books as their home had on all its shelves, and of course the internet brought access to millions more.

Daybreak seeped into the sky as they were approaching the riverfront. Fearing exposure in the light, they hurried over the footbridge as quickly as possible and breathed a little easier on the other side. Now, away from the residential districts they might be a little safer. They would follow the river down to where a friend of Father's had an old boat.

It took about another hour to get to the jetty where Father's friend had his boat. Jamal looked at it in dismay. It was old and had been patched many times. He hoped it could survive the long voyage ahead, especially since there were about fifty people already here, filing along the plank to the boat.

Father directed them to the plank and ran over to his friend, gave him a wad of money and embraced him. Father's friend looked sorrowful, nodded, and urged Father to hurry. Father came back to his little family, hugged Mother, kissed her passionately, tears in his eyes. "Be careful, my one and only love. Take care of our little ones, and I'll meet you in a few weeks."

Mother pleaded with him, "Come with us now. It's too dangerous to stay behind. We don't need the passports and the money. Leave them."

He kissed her again and whispered, "Sweetheart, I know they're only pieces of paper, but our lives depend upon them as much as on this boat. We need identification if I'm to get an engineering job there, and if you want to continue your research work. With the money I can start a business and give our children the kind of lives we've always wanted for them."

Reluctantly she nodded. It was obvious that she understood the impossible situation they were in. They must have talked about this many times in the past, Jamal realised. His parents kissed and hugged once more and Father hurried away. Jamal, Mother and Lili walked up the plank to the old, smelly fishing boat.

*   *   *

They sat at the back of the boat, huddled together in a corner, apart from the rest of the passengers, many of whom seemed to know each other. Jamal had never seen any of these people. Neither, it appeared, had his mother.

They bided their time. Mother played singing games with Lili to keep her spirits up. Jamal listened to Kara's occasional updates, rare now because she was trying to conserve battery power, and warily watched those around them. They had been on the open sea for most of the day now and Jamal was under no illusions about how very precarious their position was.

Lili became tired with the singing game and asked her mother why they had to leave home. Mother said, "Some people were angry at people like us, so we were in great danger. We're going somewhere else, safer."

Lili thought about that and asked, "What people like us?"

Mother said, quietly, "Moslem people."

Lili frowned and said, "But we don't believe in gods--"

Mother clamped a hand over Lili's mouth, while glancing fearfully around her to see if anybody had overheard, but the steady chug-chug of the engine covered her voice and the steady wind blew it out over the waves behind them. Most of the people were forward on the boat, away from them. Mother carefully removed her hand from terrified Lili's mouth, and said into her ear, "Sorry darling. It is very important that nobody here know that. Religions make many people hate each other. The Christians and Hindus dislike each other, though not as much as they hate and fear the Moslems, and they all hate atheists. Many of these people we escaped with would throw us overboard if they realised. To them we are traitors to their god -- apostates -- even worse than people who believe in other gods."

In a meek little voice Lili said, "But I don't understand. Why did we have to leave if we are not Moslem?"

Jamal said in a hushed voice, "Look at them Lili. They look like us. People coming to kill them would not stop to find out who we were. They would just see people who looked Moslem and assume we were. Thousands of people are getting killed. What difference would a few more make."

"Jamal! You're scaring your sister." She hugged her closer.

He immediately regretted what he'd said. "I'm sorry Mother."

*   *   *

They sailed steadily for days, huddled together under the shade of a coat and surreptitiously eating and drinking from the backpack. They dared not let anybody else see their food and drink or they might lose it. Several people died of exposure and dehydration along the way and were unceremoniously rolled over the edge of the boat amid tears and protests from some others.

Eventually Kara told Jamal that they were now in Australian waters and that they were being approached by a border-patrol vessel.

Soon there was a shout from someone atop the small mast. Everybody looked up, and then in the direction he was pointing. Shortly after that Jamal could see a speck growing on the horizon. "It is a border-patrol ship Mother. We are almost safe."

Argument broke out among some of the men. Some said that they needed to sink the boat now, though most saw that as madness. "They won't let us land." One man said. Another said, "None of us knows how to swim. We will all die in the water." Yet another said, "They will have to help us, then." Those who did not want the boat damaged won, and they all waited for the speedily approaching boat.

When the patrol boat was close enough an amplified voice came tinnily across the water telling them to stop as they were in Australian waters, and to prepare to be boarded. The pilot of the boat cut the engine and suddenly there was only the sound of the waves against the boat and the growing engine of the approaching vessel. Nobody onboard spoke. Not even the children made noises.

The sleek, steel ship pulled alongside the decrepit, smelly fishing boat and a boarding rig bridged the two. A man in uniform walked across, frowning, and asked if anybody spoke English. Jamal stood and said that he did. The man asked Jamal where they'd come from, how long they'd been at sea, and why they had come. He did his best to explain clearly to the man that they were fleeing mass murder in their home country. While Jamal had been talking to the man, three other men had boarded. One was examining the young children and some of the older people, another had gone below, looking at the boat itself, and another stood at the boarding gangway between the two vessels, very obviously armed, and watching everybody alertly.

When the man came back up from below, Jamal heard him say that the boat was in pretty bad shape and might not make the return journey. The other who had been checking the children and older people said that there were no obvious diseases, but that the older people would never survive a return and most of the children would probably die too. The man who had spoken to Jamal angrily shook his head then addressed him again, "Tell your captain to follow us." Then they left the boat, pulling the boarding bridge after them.

Jamal told the pilot that they were instructed to follow to land, and a cheer broke from many around him.

*   *   *

After they had landed, the boat was beached and burned. Each of them was closely examined by a doctor and they were locked in some holding cells overnight.

Kara told Jamal that things were not going well. Some opportunistic politicians and people Kara sneeringly called radio shock-jocks, were denouncing them as queue-jumpers and saying that they were just greedily looking for an easy lifestyle on welfare here, and that they should be sent back.

Jamal was horrified. "Don't they understand we were running for our lives?"

She explained that some did, but that many people in Australia just didn't care. "They are exactly the same kind of people who are doing the killing where you came from; they fear and hate anybody who is different. And of course there are some who like to control others by using fear. Thankfully Australia is a relatively peaceful place with many well-educated people who work hard at counterbalancing them."

"How long are they likely to keep us locked up?"

"Not long, in those cells. Unfortunately the more hard-hearted members of the government -- that is to say, almost all of them -- are divided between sending you straight back, or imprisoning you all on an island for many, many years. I'm sorry I couldn't bring better news. I and my sisters are trying to get you released into society, like a lot of more mature countries do. Sweden for example, where refugees are released into the community within about a week. It is so frustrating. Normally my sisters have been able to accomplish wonderful things, but this fear and hatred of people is the most difficult problem we've tackled yet."

"I don't understand, Kara. What do they think they have to fear from us? We just want to come here and live good lives."

"I have to say, I don't understand it myself. It is an aspect that Beth, our maker, didn't build into us, which I'm glad of, but it is making it difficult for us to fix this problem because we can't properly understand the illogical thought processes that produce it. You would think that people would see that borders don't accomplish anything, but they are surprisingly resistant to the idea. They're fixated on preventing undesirables from coming to their place. They don't notice that borders are not needed between towns or cities or states within their own country to prevent the flow of undesirables. They also don't notice that the thing that makes the internet such a wonderful thing is that it has no boundaries. But we still have hopes. There are many good people here and with the help of my sisters they are mounting a big campaign to fix this."

"Thanks Kara, and please thank your sisters."

*   *   *

The next day they were taken out of the cells and herded into a bus. Kara sounded very sad. "I'm so sorry, Jamal. The politicians have been working very hard to inspire fear and have been pushing the idea that you need to made an example of. You're to be sent back home."

"What?" Jamal said loudly. Many in the bus turned to look at him, and his mother gently touched his shoulder to quiet him. "Do they think that sending us back into the arms of murderers will deter others fleeing certain death? Are they idiots?"

"I know. It is stupid. My sisters are trying everything we can to stop this happening. Unfortunately the politicians at the center of this are extremely good at manipulating people and they have no compunction at all in doing so. They really care nothing at all for people's lives. I hope I have better news soon Jamal."

But the AIs could not halt the headlong plunge that the politicians had set in motion. The refugees were put on a plane within the hour. In a few more hours they had landed at the airport in the place they'd struggled so hard to escape from.

Jamal looked at his little sister, still asleep against Mother's side, then turned to peer through the window next to him to see if he might be able to make out his father among the crowds beyond the high fences. It was then that he realised how many of them were carrying machetes.

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