Aya had frostbites on her feet as a result of sleeping in the freezing cold and walking for days without being able to rest. She was eight-year-old the day our lives briefly encountered and, together, with her family, she was fleeing the war in Syria.
Aya was a refugee, the first I had ever met in person. The moment she looked and smiled at me, I knew I would have never been able to forget her face: Exhausted, ill, yet with a hint of hope lingering in her eyes.
I met Aya in November, while I was in Serbia reporting on the ongoing refugee crisis, one of the biggest man-made catastrophes of this century.
During my permanence at the Berkasovo-Bapska crossing point, on the border with Croatia, I met and spoke with dozens of refugees, every one of whom with a harrowing story to tell.
Aya and her family had already crossed several countries – by boat, by train, by walk – with the hope of leaving a life full of violence and suffering behind. Just a distant memory, a terrible nightmare to forget.
The little girl and her family had been witnessing atrocities since the war erupted in their country in 2011 and caused the death and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people before the eyes of the international community. The emergence of several terror groups and the intervention of foreign coalitions further increased tensions and attacks leaving millions hopeless.
Aya and her family were fleeing from one of the most brutal, most complicated, most devastating wars of recent history. However, as many countries had been caught unprepared – or unwilling to be prepared to face the biggest humanitarian crisis in recent history – their journey to Germany was not free from obstacles, hostility, lack of food and harsh weather conditions that threatened their lives.
Winter loomed and the freezing wind raged against the refugees, often covered in clothes inadequate to face winter.
“All I want is a pair of warm, comfortable shoes as the ones I had, got lost while I was in Turkey,” Aya told me in Arabic. As the translator explained what she had just said, I kept thinking there was anger and frustration in her voice, those emotions you would not expect to hear in a child’s voice.
The previous night, the Syrian family and dozens of other people had to sleep in the open near the crossing point, waiting for the police to open the gates.
Aya’s mother, Rima, told me she was extremely worried about her daughter and her son, who was sleeping in a tent nearby. “During our journey, they kept telling me they wanted to die,” Aya’s mother told me. “We left Syria, but we are still suffering.”
Even when I left Serbia two days later, I knew Aya was still suffering and I will never know whether she and her family made it to Germany, where they wanted to start a new life, be normal, be safe without the fear of death marking every second of their life.
Aya and her family are among thousands of people who every day leave their families and belongings and embark in a perilous journey to reach Europe and the safety it guarantees.
2015 was marred by the death of thousands of desperate people who lie forgotten in the waters on the Mediterranean Sea or frozen to death in the mountains at the doorstep of Europe.
Unless conflicts around the world cease and the international community steps up its effort to improve humanitarian assistance, 2016 and the years ahead will still see thousand of deaths and children who, like Aya, will flee death not knowing whether they can meet life on the other side.
Ludovica travelled to Serbia courtesy of World Vision UK. Click here for more information about World Vision UK refugee crisis appeal.
Watch here the full interview with Aya and her mother Rima.