Sunday, September 13, 2015

Being a Refugee

Photo: Syrian News Agency SANA
A thunderous, sharp noise explodes near you, shaking your building and your body so much your teeth rattle.  You know the artillery fire is coming closer and closer. The artillery targets everything -- civilian and military targets, civilians and soldiers -- and it is only a matter of time before your building is hit.  You will not be safe inside.  But if you go outside, you risk being shot by the soldiers patrolling the streets. And where will you go?  There are no longer any safe places in your home.

Maybe you're an elderly man, a mother, a child, a man who refuses to fight because neither side fights for what he believes in.  You know what the occupiers want: civilian obedience, complete control, complete power. In order to survive, you will need to change your life to comply with what the occupiers want, i.e. convert to their religion, conform to their laws, say nothing and do nothing that could be interpreted as against the occupiers. You will lose your present job. You may lose your house or apartment and be assigned some other, less comfortable, place, a hovel. You understand how dangerous the occupiers are to your current way of life, to your survival and the survival of those you love.

What do you do?  How do you escape? Let's say you manage to escape your building with your family and elude the occupiers' soldiers.  You have made it into the countryside.  But you don't know where the soldiers are or if any of the houses you pass are occupied by sympathizers, so you don't try to ask for help.  You have no car, no transportation of any kind except for your two feet.  So you walk.  You hide.  You sleep little, eat even less, and steal water when you can't find a stream.

Let's say you actually make it to the border of your country.  You are exhausted.  Your family is exhausted.  Let's say you have a wife and two young children, or you're a mother with two young children and your elderly parents.  You've managed to survive this far.  At this border, you are relieved to encounter friendly border guards on the other side, and they help you with food, water, and a little money with directions to the nearest town with a train station.  There you and your family catch a train -- you and your family decide that you want to go to Germany or Sweden, or maybe England so your children will learn English -- and you travel into the next country on the way, an East European country.

When the train pulls into the station of a big city, police or army soldiers board the train and escort you and your family off it.  They take you to an open air camp surrounded by a fence of barbed wire and wooden stakes sharpened into points at the top.  Other families from your country welcome you into this camp.  They have been there already a week.  They tell you what to expect: verbal abuse, contempt, threats, little food and water, no help.  You are cold, hungry, thirsty, exhausted, and scared.  The guards in the camp remind you of the occupiers' soldiers in your home country. They terrify you. All you want is a safe, secure place to live with your family and to work, make your contribution to society.  Oh, yes.  You also want to be free to live in a safe, secure place, and to work at a job of your choosing. But as each day passes in the camp, it looks more and more like you and your family will be deported back to your home country.  It's not that Germany or Sweden or even England doesn't want you.  It's that the country you are in currently thinks you're dirty, a terrorist, and disgusting, and will have nothing to do with you, your family, or helping you.  They just want you to return from where you came from.  You have nothing.  No food, no water, no clothes, no money, no transportation, no belongings.

Photo: Zoltan Gergely Kelemen/MTI via AP
Most of all, you have no power.

Americans have a hard time imagining what it could be like to be a refugee seeking asylum in a totally foreign country with strange customs, a strange unknown language, and not knowing anyone.  Americans don't know what it's like to live in a war zone or to live in a totalitarian dictatorship. We can read about these things in a novel, see them in a movie or play, listen to immigrants talk about their experiences.  But that's nothing compared with walking in a refugee's shoes.

As I've watched the refugee crisis develop over the last few weeks in Europe, I've been thinking about this a lot, trying to imagine what it would be like to be one of those refugees.  Wishing that I had the resources to sponsor a family in order to help a family find safe haven.  Out of fear comes the courage to leave a known culture and home in order to escape the violence and destruction of war and oppression. Out of desperation comes the courage to act.  What have you been thinking about?

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