no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
From Home by Warsan Shire, a Somali poet
Yannis is a baker on an Athens street. He’s finding it harder and harder to go out of his shop, because of the smell. People, lots of people, are camped outside, in tents. Some just sleep on the pavement. He’s been giving them bread, but how long can this go on? One week follows the next, and his regular customers are dwindling. They’re making a detour to another bakery, because the smell is awful and the spectacle heartbreaking.
People have been giving the refugees food, but they have nowhere to wash themselves or their clothes. Mostly, they have no toilets. At least it’s summer, so they’re not cold at night, but during the day the sun is merciless.
Many such scenes of desperation are played out on the refugee route from the Greek islands through Athens and then north, towards Germany or Calais, for those whose aim is the UK. Another route starts in Italy.
In some places, a distinct note of xenophobia if not racism is creeping in. The migrants have variously been described as ‘marauding’ and ‘swarming’. Some countries have been trying to keep them out by any means. In a photograph that made the front pages, a man with mournful brown eyes is handing a baby dressed in a pink onesie over rolls of razor wire on the Hungarian border. Czech officials caused a scandal by stamping refugees’ arms with numbers. The Italians have closed the border at Brennero. Passengers on the Eurostar remained stranded in the dark for hours after the train was stopped because of refugees walking on the track and on the roof.
Angela Merkel has said that the migration crisis is a bigger test for the European Union than the Greek financial meltdown. To my mind, she’s the first European leader to have grasped the immensity and urgency of the problem and to have taken responsibility for dealing with it. Thanks to her handling, Germany has regained the moral high ground. It has been obliged to lead in this matter due to the incapacity of the rest of Brussels to deal with the problem.
Merkel has been heard to remark that what Germany is living through now will change the face of the country over the next few years. The same is true for the whole of Europe, and it is up to Europe to make this issue as positive as possible. After all, the populations of both Europe and the U.S. are to a large degree made up of immigrants.
Sadly, some refugees who ‘made it’ report the experience was ‘not worth it’. These are people who paid all they had, risked death multiple times, had to eat grass to survive, were kidnapped and held captive for ransom on the way, then nearly drowned, and finally spent months in camps – only to find a lonely existence, excluded from local society, struggling to learn a foreign language and strange customs, in the hope of getting a menial job. They tell the ones left back home not to do it. But no one listens.
Why? Because things at home are much, much worse. People don’t leave all they know on a whim. It is interesting to read On Encouragement, an essay by Helen Jones: https://helenejones.wordpress.com/2015/09/03/on-encouragement/
They have no choice.
It is appalling that by failing to agree on how this crisis could be confronted, the EU is now fostering a new species of international crime. Illegal migration is now big business. Not only are these displaced people being robbed, terrorized and sometimes killed by gangsters, they are also being preyed upon by political manipulators.
The degree of collective irresponsibility is truly shocking. In Greece, for example, the authorities have spectacularly delayed in setting up the structures that would allow them to draw upon an EU fund available for the purpose. The blame game is shameful to behold. What is going on in most of Europe is way beyond the limits of what should be acceptable to any enlightened society.
You have all seen the images: of the toddler washed up on the shore, of the overflowing boats, the tents, the crowds. I will not post more. You can read the statistics, the declarations, the arguments. I have no arguments. But if you want to know what it’s like for them, read The Rahma Diaries blog, and especially the post A Letter from one Mother to Another. Rahma is a mother with a baby, and she can write.
And read Russell Chapman’s blog post: Escape to Freedom. Bringing a Syrian Family to Safety. Russell is a freelance writer and photographer who undertook to help a family travel from Athens to ‘a particular country in Europe’. Hair-raising and harrowing.
Photos by Anna Koenig