When the boats loaded with refugees come ashore in Europe, one of the first things the survivors do is read out the names of the dead who never made it across in an act of remembrance. This week, there are many dead for all of us to remember; a night of shooting left over a hundred and thirty people dead in Paris, in Beirut the day before, forty people died and over two hundred were wounded. Off the Greek islands, boatloads of refugees fleeing the same violence back home have sunk and many drowned, mostly babies and young children.
|Refugees hold vigil in Calais on Saturday|
A report - immediately contested - that one of the Paris attackers was Syrian, has spread fear and confusion among many, that among the mass of desperate humanity currently wending its way through Europe in the great refugee exodus, there are terrorists and ISIS fighters. Within hours, French bombs pulverised Syria in retaliation adding to the wave of dead. Refugees, in turn, fear a backlash against them in retaliation for the attacks, and a cooking fire which burned down over forty homes in the Calais camps on Saturday night was immediately (and it thankfully appeared, wrongly) assumed to be an attack.
Refugees have been holding vigil after vigil over the past few days in the Calais camps, some impromptu in silence, others with candles in jars, some with faith leaders leading prayers, refugees reading out poems and speakers from different backgrounds publicly denouncing the violence. My friend and fellow Calais Action volunteer Clare Struthers, just back from helping refugees in Samos, has this week has been running a participatory photography project with refugees in Calais and snapped the picture on the left. The mood in the camps throughout has been one of sadness and dismay, and refugees, especially the Afghans and Syrians, can empathise exactly with the violence which has hit Paris.
"I'm a Muslim, I am not a terrorist," posted one with an accompanying picture of the Eiffel Tower on Facebook. Another, interviewed by the only press to cover the Calais vigils (at time of writing), was plain in his shock. "I fled Syria because of ISIS. I can't explain my anger at seeing ISIS in France."
|Children sleep in Samos (c) Clare Struthers|
Another friend, Zora, currently volunteering with refugees in Lesvos, wrote movingly of her encounter with a Syrian family just off the smugglers boats, who despite their difficulties, were upbeat. '"At least we're not having bombs from Daesh [ISIS] next to our house," said the mom ... I don't know where they were when they heard the news out of Beirut and Paris, but it must have been chilling. The very thing they were running from was waiting for them in Europe."'
But it's not only ISIS that many Syrians are fleeing from. I interviewed Hassan, a former schoolteacher of English from Damascus, who has applied for asylum in the UK. Hassan was arrested twice and imprisoned by the government for his involvement in protesting early on in the Arab Spring, and his family were threatened. After he was banned from teaching and leaving Syria, he fled to Dubai, and afterwards through Europe, following the Balkan route, through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria. This is a route that many refugees follow, and can lead through borders both legal and illegal, via sinking smuggler boats, long waits at borders without shelter, eight-hour walks through forests, and the squalid conditions of transit camps. But despite his horrendous journey, Hassan has been moved by the compassion of those volunteers working with refugees abroad, whose bringing of food and clothes to Calais made his two months there bearable.
"This whole refugee crisis has taught us that these "infidels" who our imams used to warn us against, opened their doors to us, gave us shelter, food and care," says Hassan. "They sent convoys through Europe to help us. While Saudi, the mother of Islam, didn't take in a single refugee."
In my previous two posts on empathy, I wrote about the role of literature in instilling empathy in us. If we feel we have walked a mile in someone's shoes, we feel empathy for them. Despite the many great refugee novels that followed in the aftermath of the Second World War, we have yet to build a large body of literature about the modern refugee crisis. Are we simply too afraid to look at the immense task before us?
Through meeting and talking with so many refugees in my work with Calais Action, I've had the idea of writing a series of books (working title: the Safe Passage series) following the journeys of child refugees through Europe; a Syrian girl fleeing with her family on the eve of her ninth birthday, a 12-year old Eritrean boy escaping the secret police with his brother, a 14-year old Afghani boy travelling with his friends after escaping brutal recruitment back home. Written simply and from a child's point of view, adults will pick up the wider story; putting the human face on a huge and scary problem is the first step to empathy.
Empathy is everything; as a parent myself, if my country was bombed, I would put my children on a smuggler's boat, I would walk illegally through borders carrying them in the pouring rain, I would lie still in a sealed cargo container for eight hours to smuggle myself into safety if that's what it took. And I don't know a parent who wouldn't. If my agent can't find a publisher to take the books, no problem - I'm planning on an e-book, get in a great illustrator to help, publish it ourselves, percentage of the profits to help fund refugee groups. For the first time in my life, I'm almost looking forward to rejection!
What you can do:
Since August I've been working with Calais Action, a grass-roots giving group collecting donated items and money to help those displaced into refugee camps across Europe. We've packed up and sent aid to camps in northern France, Hungary and the Greek islands. Please like and follow our page and if possible donate directly to our Samos appeal
If you believe that nobody should have to hang onto the bottom of a lorry or leap on a moving Eurostar to be eligible for asylum, then sign this petition calling for safe and legal asylum stations to be available throughout Europe so nobody has to risk their life and can be assessed safely and according to merit.
Yvette Cooper this week visited the camps at Calais and was appalled at young children living in tents in this weather. BADGER YOUR MP for their stance on the refugee crisis and demand that they raise the question in the House for a humane, long term and far-reaching political solution. Because while their homes and lives are being bombed, threatened and conscripted, refugees will not stop coming. Our MPs aren't going to be able to look away forever.