Lately, the language with which many of us use to communicate with one another feels and sounds fraught. Maybe we feel irritable, sad, angry. Maybe we blame it on overwork, lack of sleep, too much caffeine, not enough caffeine, lack of love or world-weariness in general.
Our language when we speak with one another is fraught, because we, ourselves are fraught. We communicate in the language of crisis and fatigue. Fatigue of crisis. We look to one another for a moment of reprieve , but these days lately are tough ones and in one way or another, we are feeling it.
I am writing this while watching “breaking news” on CNN who is reporting that a peaceful, but large gathering of people in Philadelphia , protesting the unexplained and tragic death of Freddie Gray , an African-American man who died while in police custody, have begun to “clash” with police. Or, perhaps, police have begun to clash with protesters. (note: protesters are citizens, not criminals, and they deserve protection!) I suspect, but hope and pray otherwise, that the situation may get more out of hand as the evening wears on and darkness descends on the City of Brotherly Love.
Last week, when over 800 migrants died in the Mediterranean attempting to escape death and chaos, I was approached by more than just a few people on the “situation” “over there”. I was feeling raw from the news, sad in a deep place that I could not adequately articulate to anyone. I have spent time with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, have witnessed to and for them with what I hope is care and responsibility and have never, ever, not even once , taken that responsibility lightly. The ethical pitfalls of working with such a vulnerable population are many and I am all too aware of them. It is not anyone’s responsibility to know how emotionally fragile I felt over the situation—-I have not even an iota of the vulnerability these brave men and women have to cross an ocean with nothing but the shirts on their backs, but I was amazed and dismayed by the lack of compassion for these people by those who did not have an understanding of the situation. And so, I began with great patience in discussing the situation .
I have been keeping this blog for almost 4 years, documenting the trials of the migrant, refugee and asylum seeker in the Sicilian context, but I suppose it is not a sexy enough subject for people to care about in their day to day lives. I have attempted to methodically chronicle my thoughts , experiences and encounters from my ethnography in this blog and was (and still am!) grateful to anyone to whom it provides any enlightenment. But to those who simply do not want to understand, who have already prejudged these people, who say that Europe has no responsibility for the troubles the migrants are fleeing and therefore have no right to protection have left me feeling…well, here I am at a loss for words And then I realized that people were baiting me in an attempt to clobber me on the head with their own opinions which, to be generous in a situation where I probably shouldn’t, were disturbing at best, sickening at worst.
One person asked me, in an imperious and razor-edge tone ,’ if the migrants can afford to “pay” human traffickers so much money, why don’t they just buy a plane ticket and go to Europe like normal, civilized people?’ This person is highly educated. And, in fact, born and raised in Europe, but a naturalized American citizen. I had no words. I put my hand up to stop the conversation and willed deafness to be able to block out the senselessness that was coming out of her mouth.
In essence, in her opinion and the opinion of many others who I have spoken to, the underlying problem, really, is that the migrants are simply the wrong color. This should not shock or surprise anyone. This is not new. In the United States right now, Baltimore is burning, protests are spreading once again across the country against police brutality and against racism that is firmly embedded and institutionalized.
What does this have to do with the refugees? If you cannot see the parallels, I probably would not be able to explain it to you. And , unfortunately, my patience is wearing thin. Because I thought that I could educate people, I thought I could “bear witness”. But people will see, hear and believe what they want to believe. And it seems as though tragedy is polarizing us now, more than ever.
While Europe dallies, and those who have been ignoring a situation that has been going on for years act as if this terribly tragic situation just came out of absolutely nowhere, the migrants will continue to come. They will not ever stop coming. They have the right to protection, which is not only a humanitarian imperative, but is a part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
I had posted a tag one day on Facebook , in response to migrant deaths, proclaiming “refugee lives matter” and was asked by a friend I respect profoundly “when will we say all lives matter?” I gently called him out on this. I responded thus: when the lives of the most vulnerable matter. Plain and simply. He sent me a message that meant a lot to me. He acknowledged my feelings. As a thinking and feeling person, he felt the strain of tragedy himself and was looking for a universal answer–an all-inclusive message that we all matter. And in fact, we do. The point is not to value one life over another. But one must, in the final estimation, look at how uneven the playing field is. It seems almost criminal to even describe it that way.
I stand in solidarity with the refugees and will continue to act as writer/activist , with care and witness. And hopefully, a multi-pronged solution can be implemented, but I fear it may be too late. So many lives, undocumented in life and undocumented in death.
Indeed, refugees lives matter. So let’s start acting like they do.