In the current migration and refugee crisis, is scale trumping humanity?
Something about the way the story of the ongoing epic migration and refugee crisis is being told perturbs. Scale trumps humanity. Overwhelmingly, the focus is on the sheer girth and amplitude of the crisis. Mind-numbing statistics tumble from the mouth of broadcasters, and the cameras pan over and around scenes of multitudes on the move almost the same way that documentary makers film the flight of sky-darkening flocks of migratory birds or the earthquake mimicking stampede of wild bulls across a great river. The tragedies that occur with saddening frequency are anonymous: another boat sinks in the Mediterranean, hundreds are dead. We don’t see victims; we don’t know them. We see pictures of the flotsam and jetsam, of the foul detritus of failed voyages. And the cameras move on.
Until the picture of the lifeless body of little Aylan Kurdi on a Turkish beach turns up and the world is stunned and horrified. For instance, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy recently told Fareed Zakaria of CNN that that picture transformed policymaking in parts of Europe from indifferent to totally engaged. That, I would argue, is because that picture foregrounded a powerful truth.
What is this truth? It is this: while this migration and refugee crisis might be on a biblical scale, it is still about discrete, distinct, singular human lives. Each one of these people on the move is an individual, a bundle of consciousness, a brain, emotions, feelings, deep needs and aspirations, parents, families, friends, the whole nine yards. Above all, the truth is that each one of these individuals has chanced, gambled her life. In other words, each life caught up in this crisis is a life adventured. And when a human life is adventured a tragic ending is often the result.
The true basis of empathy, then, is to encounter and meditate on even a few of these individual lives, and to learn about them not as vague faces in a mass exodus but as richly realized and depicted individuals. For even when we watch documentaries showing, for instance, wildebeest crossing a river in the Serengeti all you see is an anonymous, heaving mass of bulls on the move until the camera zooms in on a scene: one individual bull, poor thing, is trapped in the overmastering jaws of a huge crocodile, and it is tossed, rolled and drowned…to be feasted on at leisure much later. And you cannot but feel bad for the unfortunate creature.
We do need the global media to bring us the stories of the individual lives caught up in this crisis in rich detail. But I am delighted to report that I have just read a brilliant example of how to do this. It is in the October 26, 2015 edition of The New Yorker. The story is titled "Ten Borders: One refugee’s Epic Escape from Syria" by Nicholas Schmidle. The long, utterly riveting piece is the story of Gaith, a 22 year old law student who 'fled Syria with a backpack containing four shirts, a pair of pants, and a black scarf knitted by his wife'. As the war got to his town and dead bodies piled up, he realized that all his friends were either dead or gone. But the decision to leave was hard. He had just married his childhood sweetheart. And after he decided to leave, he would journey through both hell and purgatory. At different points he almost succumbed to despair. He almost lost his mind, and his life. At the end, that he made it to Sweden seems like a miracle. Key quote:
“I made it, while thousands of others didn’t. Some died on the way, some died in Syria. Every day, you hear about people drowning…In Greece, someone asked me, ‘Why take the chance?’ I said, ‘In Syria, there’s hundred-percent chance that you’re going to die. If the chance of making it to Europe is even one per cent, then that means there is a one-per-cent chance of your leading an actual life.’ ”
Gaith intends to bring his bride to Sweden and commit totally to that country. The full story is worth reading.
The New Yorker piece reminded me of a classic of the genre: Isabel Wilkerson’s award winning The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. In a gorgeously written book, Wilkerson tells the epic story of the migration of almost six million African Americans from the South to the north and west of the USA between 1915 and 1970. Books of this kind often allow scale to trump humanity. To avoid that, Wilkerson picked three individual lives (Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling and Robert Forster) caught up in the historic migration and tells the larger story through their lives…right to the very end. It is one of the best books I have ever read, and its grandeur is largely because of her stunning realization in prose-Technicolor of those three adventured lives.
Here is hoping that at some point in the future this ongoing migration and refugee crisis will inspire a masterwork like The Warmth of Other Suns. For now, please join me in wishing each adventured life currently wayfaring Bon Voyage.
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Photograph by Ben White/ CAFOD