We are the new condemned wanderers from the East. We are the new itinerants traversing through your physical borders of barbwires and inhospitable emotional barriers. We are moving hurriedly and anxiously through your highways and byways fleeing on our feet, in rickety boats and suffocating trucks, lands of sorrows and despair, following the Northern Star to the heart of Europe which seems to us at times as distant as a faraway galaxy. We are escaping the barrel bombs and gas attacks of the Assad regime in Syria, and the barbarous depredations of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the civil wars in Africa and Afghanistan.
You see us trekking ceaselessly and sometimes aimlessly, carrying few sacks and bundles of meager possessions and many precious children and babies. We carry them on our shoulders and backs, in sacks attached to our chests, with their dark and blond hairs blowing in the winds. When we get too exhausted we hold them by the hand and almost drag them on the hot asphalt. We dare not read the horrors in their eyes, and we try to console them, wiping tears off their fair faces while trying to hide ours. What can you say to a hungry and cold three year old girl clutching you almost violently at a crowded railroad station in a foreign land while waiting for handouts?
We are the new boat people coming to your Southern shores, from some of your previous colonies. Our histories were intertwined, in the geographic confines of the great White Sea. We make our desperate crossing on crowded boats that are not seaworthy, hostages to the hard men who sail them and to the cruelty of the sea.
Our ordeal is not your fault Europe, but in a way it is everyone’s failure - except the childrenHisham Melhem
And the short distances from North Africa and the Levant seem as long and as painful as those accounts of the horrific Middle Passage of the infamous transatlantic slavery that we read about in history books. And it turned out that the Greek mythical sea creatures of the Mediterranean like the Scylla and Charybdis were real. They claimed many of our loved ones. Those who were not kept in the watery graveyards of the Mediterranean were washed up on its shorelines, half naked, on their backs with arms open as if in silent prayer, or on their stomachs in serene postures, with the gentle waves still lapping on their sleepy faces. There were too many of them, including children last week. Many of them were nameless, and some we came to know their names and became acquainted with their surviving relatives who introduced us to some of their happier moments captured in photographs. And those are the hardest to deal with.
An iconic photo
We know that many of you were very moved by the picture of a lifeless 3- year old Kurdish Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach. The name of the little boy in a red shirt and blue shorts and sneakers, is Aylan Kurdi. His 5-year old brother, Galip, washed up not far away on the same beach. Somehow the waves lifted him to the beach and deposited him in a posture that would break the heart of every parent, remembering the numerous times they watched their 3-year olds in that serene posture in their beds, without the sneakers. The photograph, which included a lanky Turkish policeman writing brief notes about a brief life created an international outcry betraying our collective failure to protect the lives of countless Aylans in Syria in particular, a country that has been dying slowly for almost five years. Some of you reacted as if ten thousand Syrian children did not perish in that cruel war. Aylan’s body looked eerily at peace. He was reminiscent of those rows and rows of Syrian boys and girls killed by Assad’s chemical weapons in August 2013, with their ashen faces wet after they were washed by their parents and medics in the last desperate efforts to save their lives. There is something peculiar about bloodless victims of wars. But why is it that some of you can only relate to wars and calamities through iconic photos like Aylan’s? Most of the children killed in Syria remain nameless except for their next of kin, and their final moments were bloody.
The children of a lesser God
We know that we are the second largest refugee Tsunami to hit Europe since the Second World War, when 60 million were uprooted, expelled or displaced and left to roam the ruined cities and towns of the continent. We know that Europe is deeply divided because of us. There is the magnanimous welcoming Germany willing to take about 800 thousands of us, four times last year's figure and more than all the other nations in the European Union, but then there is Hungry which is building a modern hostile fence on its border with Serbia to prevent us from crossing. To them we are the modern day equivalent of the Barbarians who should be kept at the gates. Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, wrote in a German paper about the need to secure his nation’s borders from the mostly Muslim refugees and migrants ‘to keep Europe Christian’. Not to be outdone, Slovakia has said it will accept only a limited number of Christian refugees. Is this the Europe of the 21st century? Are not there already millions of Muslims in Europe with deep roots from the shores of the Black Sea to the Iberian Peninsula? And as if the old Jewish communities of Europe, did not contribute magnificently to its arts and sciences? We know that we worship the same God, though we know also that you consider us the children of a lesser God.
The forgotten history of European wanderers
Some of us know your traumatic history with refugees, since you have created the largest wave of such wanderers in history. Our numbers are large, but they pale in comparison with the refugees in your midst 70 years ago. Maybe the German government’s moral position is in part due to its bitter memories of the millions of Germans who were expelled from Eastern Europe after WWII. During the last stages of that war many Germans fled East Prussia, but Thousands of them drowned in the overloaded ships in the Baltic Sea. With the exception of few details those European refugees 70 years ago were like us today. More than 11 million Germans were expelled or moved from Eastern Europe. Other refugees were the Jews, including those who survived the concentration camps, were turned into refugees after the end of the war when they returned to their homes only to be told that they are not welcomed since their properties had new occupants. Will some in Europe shot the gates in our faces, just as they did to German and Jewish refugees after the Second World War? We want to be part of your future by reminding you of your recent past.
Some of us are cognizant that the United States, a country of immigrants, wanderers and refugees has accepted less than 2 thousand Syrian refugees. But some of us still remember that the U.S. during WWII accepted only 21 thousand Jewish refugees from Europe; in fact in 1939 a ship carrying 936 Jewish refugees from Germany was not allowed to unload on orders of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
From Warsaw to Homs
Until recently, we were like you, leading lives of normalcy, worried about mundane things and the everyday inconveniences, punctuated by occasional sublime acts and thoughts. Nothing prepares you to become a refugee. To be uprooted and condemned to a life of wandering and relying on the kindness of strangers, knowing as the patterns of resettlement of refugees, shows that a majority of them cannot go home again is akin to banishment to a life of perpetual unfulfilled yearnings and disillusionments. Some of us lived in famed cities like your famed cities. And abruptly the sky was raining barrel bombs, cluster munitions, and rockets laden with chemical weapons, accompanied by siege and starvation.
The world expressed sympathy and we were grateful. Then our cities began to die, like Europe’s cities in the 14th century when the bubonic plague decided to visit and stay. People were uprooted, and then the historic places, structures and activities that one associate with culture and civilization began to crumble literally and figuratively. Some of us, like some of your forefathers in the Second World War were forced to defend their cities. Those who were under siege in an ancient city like Homs, fought bravely against the praetorian guards of the local despot and his foreign brutal legionnaires, just as the braves of Warsaw fought ferociously in 1944 against German occupation ( just as the Jews did a year earlier with tragic end to the whole community). The defendants of both cities lost, as magnificently as great men lose. The few who survived became refugees…
Our ordeal is not your fault Europe, but in a way it is everyone’s failure - except the children. We will always ask ourselves, just as our children will ask us in the future; what went wrong? How come we reached this nadir? How come we are now a nation on the move, a nation of itinerants? We are the wanderers from the East, condemned to wandering and wondering.
Refugees in the sun
In one week more than a hundred refugees drowned off the coast of Libya and 71 migrants suffocated in a truck on an Austrian highway in the heart of Europe. Crammed against one another in the heat of summer, the bodies began to decompose. It is believed that some, if not all of them fled the war in Syria, to die alone in a dark truck on another continent.
When I read the news I immediately remembered the novella ‘Men in the Sun’ written by the Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani, and published in 1962. This is a tale of three Palestinian refugees of humble backgrounds, a young boy of 16, a resistance fighter in his twenties, and an old peasant. All are leaving behind lives of alienation and disillusionment, hoping to find a better future in wealthy Kuwait. Their smuggler hide them in the oven-like tank of his lorry, before he is delayed for trivial reasons at the borders. The three men suffocate and die. After the smuggler dispose of the bodies in a trash dump, he wonders in fright why the three men did not knock on the walls of the lorry, their allegorical prison. Were these men condemned to die, because they traveled too far from their homeland, did they feel total despair because their self-imposed exile in the desert could only lead to their demise. Or did they decide at that fateful moment that it is better for them to commit suicide and die with some dignity rather than run the risk of being caught and endure further humiliation. The smuggler kept asking ‘why didn’t you knock on the walls of the lorry? Why didn’t you say anything? Why? Why? Why?
I kept wondering if those 71 refugees tried to knock on the walls of the truck. Did they knock and were ignored? Is it conceivable that they decided to die in silence and some dignity? Maybe, but if they did not knock on the walls, we have to keep asking why? Why? Why?
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem