Tuesday, 13 September 2016

On Our Shared Humanity - Calais, Lesbos, and the Refugee Crisis

This article was originally published on The Radical Tea Towel Company's blog page: https://www.radicalteatowel.com/blog/calais-lesbos-refugee-crisis/

A couple of weeks ago, I was giving a speech at my old school about the refugee crisis and my time working in refugee camps. My speech was part of “Culture Week”, a school initiative designed to broaden the horizons of younger students, and the chosen theme for this year was migration.

I talked about how I’d decided to go to Calais when I saw that photo of Aylan Kurdi lying lifeless on the Turkish beach; how I’d worked alongside the charities Help Refugees and L’auberge des Migrants to deliver aid to the Calais Jungle; and how I’d later flown out to Lesbos and worked in Moria camp and on the shores of the Greek island as refugees crossed the threshold of Europe.

One of the things that I said when I started my speech was that I didn’t want to focus on the politics of the situation. It’s easy to get carried away with questions of border policy and the social or economic viability of solutions. These are all important points that need to be considered when addressing a crisis like the one we currently face, but I felt that the talk would be most effective if I were to focus wholly on the human aspect of the situation. After all, I went to Calais and Lesbos for humanitarian reasons, not political ones.

In retrospect, I think that was the right decision – to focus on the personal, rather than the political, the human rather than the logistical. I could speak for days about how there are currently 60 million refugees worldwide; how this is the largest refugee crisis since World War II; and how there are approximately 294 unaccompanied minors living in the Calais Jungle, desperately in need of safety. I could also tell you about the hundreds of refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean, and the terrible brutality of French police in Calais.

These are all harrowing facts and statistics and they should be widely shared. They conjure up images of young children alone in an alien country, of weeping mothers grieving the death of their loved ones, and of refugees fleeing tear gas and rubber bullets. These are all things that I have witnessed first hand, and when I talked at my school about these experiences the room fell silent.

And yet, there still seems to be a sense of distance when we reflect on refugees in this way – when we present them as numbers on a graph or as helpless masses in need of charity. True, there is emotional power in talking about mothers and their children, but there is a certain rhetorical detachment. It was when I spoke about particular individuals I’d met that I felt people really took interest. It was when I got beyond the shocking facts and the images of pity that I felt I really made a connection with my audience.

So when I spoke about the Afghani man who I’d met in Lesbos, who had a successful life as an aviation engineer in Kabul before being forced to flee, I felt people really began to listen. When I told them about his fascination with Arsenal football club and about his Afghani girlfriend, shock and pity was replaced by understanding and sympathy.

The same happened when I told my audience about the 14 year-old Syrian boy who I’d met in the Calais Jungle and who, just like them, wanted to continue his education and go to university. My audience was fascinated by my young Syrian friend’s eagerness to learn French and to perfect his English, as if refugees are somehow different from children in the UK. It’s this, really, that we should all be focusing on – that we all have a shared humanity.

In fact, this was probably the most important thing that I learnt whilst volunteering – that behind every number, there is an individual, and that those individuals are exactly like you and me. Whatever we label people – refugees or economic migrants – we are all human beings. We all have dreams and ambitions, we all have passions and fears. And most importantly, we all deserve the right to a fulfilling and happy life. This, I hope, is what my audience took away with them.

If there ever is a solution to the refugee crisis, then this sense of a shared humanity must be at its core. Because we all live in the same world, and we all face difficulty and hardship, albeit in different measure. We only live the lives we do because of the chance and perhaps fortuitous circumstances of our birth. Any of us could one day be fleeing war, and that’s why we have a duty to our brothers and sisters in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, across Europe and across the world who are doing exactly what we would do if we were in their position.

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