This week I met a young man who had escaped the war in Syria and endured terrifying experiences in order to have a better life. Siblings died, his family was torn apart, access between father and children was denied by constantly changing border regulations.
Assad, Russians, Americans and British alike have ensured by a mixture of bombings, privation and political interference that Syria will not recover for many years. Yet Europe, particularly Hungary and Macedonia, and America have, largely, turned their backs on the human distress. Britain, too, has exhibited a scandalous lack of compassion, given its rôle in the rout of the Middle East.
Accusations of irresponsibility are levelled at families who are so distraught and desperate that they will attempt a hazardous sea crossing from Turkey to a Greek island (or from North Africa to Italy or Malta) to find freedom. If they make it alive from an unsuitable, overcrowded vessel, they are forced to live in the notorious ‘hot spots’ until they are ‘processed’. These reception centres provide prefabricated huts on concrete bases surrounded by chainlink fencing and barbed wire. From the elderly to the newborn, this is the paltry welcome that awaits. The centres are run by armed military personnel but the detainees are supported by generous local people, volunteers and charities.
Thereafter, until they can force their way onward, the only option for refugees is to stay in camps, often with scant shelter from the elements and typically lacking adequate sanitation. Shamefully, profiteers, and not just smugglers but hoteliers, shop and café proprietors, forgers – simply anyone callous and greedy enough – strip assets from those fleeing for their lives.
The whole situation is much more complex than I can explore here. War refugees mix with economic ‘migrants’ who are attempting to escape poverty and hopelessness. They are all victims of circumstance. Given their lives, would we not all attempt the same?
A child stands, disoriented, in the ‘hotspot’. Leros, Greece, September 2018.
Even though my interviewee, and a few other ‘lucky’ refugees, have made it to the UK, his life here is far from the one he knew. There are organisations that offer help and support, working hard to help house, educate, feed, clothe and find employment. Balancing this, exploitation by unscrupulous employers can reduce standards of living and self-esteem exponentially. Next time you are approached in a supermarket car park to have your car washed, bear in mind that the person talking to you could be a lawyer, a builder, a teacher or other highly qualified person, who is not able to practise their own skill here. Remember, too, that they may be working a nine hour day for £40 (or longer hours, or less money) and, if you’re feeling generous, give them a little extra on top of what they’re asking. More than likely, they have been through similar experiences to my young Syrian.
I will relate his full interview as a postscript to JIGSAW ISLAND. In the meantime, I can report, astonishingly, that his sense of humour has not been extinguished. He even made me laugh, while deeply moved by his story, at some of his survival techniques. What spirit.