Academic journal article The Southern Review

These Dark Skies: Seeking Refuge on Europe's Shores

Academic journal article The Southern Review

These Dark Skies: Seeking Refuge on Europe's Shores

Article excerpt

ON A SMALL CAR in my Dutch neighborhood, there is a bright orange fabric hood over the curved metal figurine of the towing hitch. Walking past it, every single time I see it, I think of Abu Ghraib and the cruelties that happened there, and I resent that I live in a world where that is my immediate association. This is a bourgeois complaint. But it is also foundational, the complaint of all of us, in one way or another: Why is it, how is it, that we live in a world with so much meanness, so much ugliness, so much sadism and injustice and indifference? The mess and tangle of this world is bewildering, overwhelming.

For a year I have been living in Northern Europe, where the unfolding of the refugee crisis feels so tangible, so close by. So much more proximate than in the U.S., where our geographic isolation can make news from other parts of the world seem to be unspooling in a distant reality. I have watched, over the course of this year, the images of cold, wet, and terrified people arriving on overloaded boats to the rocky Greek shoreline; being corralled by police and barbed wire along borders in the Balkans; waiting by the thousands, in the Budapest summer heat, to board trains closed to those seeking asylum. I have read about the migrants living in "the Jungle," the shanty camp of Calais--only a few hours away from me--as the winter weather turned colder and rainier, and watched with horror as young men from that camp were killed by lorries and cars entering the tunnel to Britain. And I have watched as the winter settled in, and thousands of people--families, children, elderly parents--were stuck, living in tents, all across Europe.

One photo in the Guardian from that time showed a newborn baby in a refugee camp: its tiny body purple and naked, being washed with water from a plastic water bottle, over a patch of dirt in front of a tent. The woman holding the baby is still half in the tent, two children peering over her shoulder; a man crouches in front of the tent, holding the water bottle, pouring the water over the infant's bare skin. The man and woman wear thick jackets, collars up against the winter cold.

Throughout the fall and winter, watching the news, every day seeking out the stories of those searching for refuge, I wondered: How is it that all of us here are going about our daily lives as though everything is normal? When so close by, there is a steady stream of people who are cold and lost and desperate arriving on the shores. When so close by, for so many people, nothing at all is normal.

In a recent On Being interview I listened to, the young monastic Shane Claiborne recalls a comic he saw in the Philadelphia newspaper:

    [O]ne guy said, 'You know, I wonder why God allows all this
poverty and
   pain and hurting in the world?' And his friend says, 'Well,
why don't you
   ask God that?' And the guy says, 'Well, I guess I'm
scared.' And he says,
   'What are you scared of?' He says, 'I guess I'm
scared that God will ask
   me the same question.' 

That same day, I watched a BBC video of Turkish coast guards hitting a boat full of refugees with sticks. We can hear a woman's voice screaming. The boat is crowded, small, and low in the water. It holds perhaps twelve people, with several children in the middle. As the sticks hit it, we see the people at the edges flinch, duck down. There is a chaos of frightened, urgent voices, speaking in Farsi and Arabic. The two boats veer apart: "They've gone, gone." Then, "Oh God! They are coming back!" a man's voice narrates. "Hopefully we'll be OK, please God," says another. Finally the small coast guard boat turns away and the video cuts off.

At some point, I couldn't keep just watching. I decided to go to Greece, to try to help, to do something other than sit in the comfort of my home and see the images of so much suffering from afar. Though well aware of the pitfalls of international volunteer work--the possibility of savior complex, the potential of becoming a resource drain yourself or complicating relations between locals and refugees, the little that can be accomplished in a short period of time--still, I decided, still: just passively watching the news felt very much like a kind of indifference. …

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