I am white, middle-aged, white-haired, a woman and a refugee. There are of course many other things that make me who I am, things that I do and the ways I relate to people and the world. When I choose to introduce myself as a refugee, I often get a response, usually well meaning, that I don’t look like a refugee. We all make judgements and use labels all the time, so I am OK with that kind of comment and with an equally well meaning tone I often ask: “So what does a refugee look like?” Regardless of how well intentioned I am, people get uncomfortable, because they can’t tell me what the refugee look is. Some are a little bit embarrassed. They should not be.
I am not ashamed, nor proud, to be a refugee. It is just a fact of my life, like middle age and white hair. Before I became a refugee, in my previous life, in the innocent 80s, I was also an economic migrant. I spent two summers working in Germany. While my friends were having fun, I chose to migrate and do hard work in German heavy metal factory. I did it in order to pay for my education. In the world before credit cards and loans, it did not really feel like a choice, because the alternative was no education and no future. I was 20, my father died, I worked hard, saved money, missed my family and friends and felt miserable all the time. I often forget that migration experience, as the war in Bosnia and exile in the UK overwhelmed a greater part of my adulthood. These experiences make me who I am today. But if I had a choice, I would never have chosen either of them.
I was pushed into both situations by my circumstances, and that is what we often choose to ignore in this debate – the push factor.
We are all bombarded by every kind of stereotype about refugees and migrants, on a daily basis. We obsessively talk about pull factors – things that we imagine we have here that all these migrants and refugees are coming for. We choose not to imagine the fears that make a mother grab her infant, surrender all their possessions to traffickers in order to board an unsafe vessel into the unknown waters and an unwelcoming world in which they will be reduced to the label migrant or refugee. We believe so strongly that people covet the lives we have. We choose to ignore the war, the violence, the famine, the joblessness, the desperation that pushes people into dangerous journeys across Europe.
Migrant or refugee. These two words are used interchangeably, and have almost completely lost any meaning that relates to the humanity of these experiences: who you are, why you came, what you have left behind .
And that is how it feels for me to be a refugee – it feels dehumanising. So every time I say I am a refugee, I am trying to reclaim a bit of my humanity too. It may be unnerving for some people. They realise I look like their aunt, teacher or a friend. Refugee or a migrant becomes a person with a story of survival and resilience as well as just an ordinary person going about their boring business. Eight people died trying to get into Britain last month, two of them, young men, were killed in the last five days. Two thousand people drowned in the Mediterranean sea this year.
And they are the ones we know of, there are countless others we will never know even existed. Once we know who they are and what happened to them, we care. When you read about nameless faceless migrants dying it feels different form learning about Mouaz al-Balkhi, he was born on 6 November 1991 in Damascus. He fled war in Syria, only to drown tragically while trying to swim to England, still buried in an unmarked grave on the island of Texel.
Earlier this month we watched a 14 year old Palestinian girl, Reem, burst into tears in a TV programme when German Chancellor Angela Merkel, very nicely explained to her that, according to the rules, she and her family will be deported to a refugee camp in Lebanon. Angela Merkel tried to comfort tearful Reem, but you can see the hostility in the room against the politician. If Angela said the same thing in a political speech in any other context, she would have probably been applauded for her tough stance on immigration – often described by politicians across the world as being firm but fair. But now we know Reem. And it changes everything. Reem is nice, speaks German, has dreams and she started to cry when Bad Politician Lady shattered those dreams. Such is the power of humanity, that within less than 24 hours, the news came that Reem and her family will be allowed to stay in Germany.
There are now nearly 60 million refugees in the world. Every single one of them has a story, they are all refugees and none of them look like a refugee. We just have not met them yet, but many are called Reem and Mouaz. Of course we cannot meet all of them. We cannot help all of them. But we can help some. They are knocking on our door, dying to get in, because there is no going back, because what they left behind is scarier than death.
The place they live in Calais we call The Jungle – as if they are some wild species at the end of the Earth, and not desperate fellow humans in France, one of the most developed countries in the world.
The question we, Europeans, need to answer is not can we afford to let them in, but can we afford not to. If we don’t, we have to be prepared for the damage that decision will do to our own humanity.