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Taking refuge

Posted in Life & Love

Even in my fog-addled brain, after a sleepless night on the plane, I sensed immediately that the odd group of people boarding the transit bus next to me were no ordinary travellers. First of all, they were shepherded by a minute, Asian woman who made sure they got on the bus for Terminal 5 at Heathrow. At the other end, a young man, holding a clipboard, tried to corral them all in the same direction.

They were all wearing heavy coats, in bright primary colors that, even in the unseasonably warm English Summer, they did not shed. The two men were tall and lanky, with weary expressions. The five women, of different ages, had their heads covered and a deer caught in the headlights gaze. One clutched a baby. There were children, several of them in fact and one teenager. The only one of the group who seemed excited was a boy, about six years old,who climbed on and off his mother’s knees, a wide grin spread across his face.

Sudan? Somalia? I wondered. They were clearly refugees, any doubts dispelled by the plastic bags they were all holding on to with the emblem of a refugee organization.
I was a bit surprised, and quite pleased, when I saw them at my gate, boarding the same flight to Los Angeles, once again instructed by a worker, or maybe a volunteer. I was pleased that my city, or my state, were giving this gaunt looking group of people a chance at a new life.

Without trying to romanticize the encounter, wondering what these people were fleeing, what horrors, or what poverty, I was reminded of how little we tangibly know of what we read.

Refugees, murder victims, poverty, hunger – they are all statistics, or stories we sometimes stop and read; we form opinions based on the reporting of others and maybe our opinions shift and take on different shapes over time but hardly ever do we interact with the subjects, entrenched in in our aseptic lives.

Three weeks have passed since I came back from South Africa. I did not see the refugees when I disembarked, they were not waiting for luggage at the carousel with the rest of us. Most likely, they were held on the plane until someone went to collect them to shepherd them through the immigration process. No quick scanning of the passport, of thumb and iris. No “welcome home” from the immigration officer, which always makes me smile proudly.

My process of acceptance was easy. My choice to come here, to become an American was mine alone, and I was welcomed with open arms, few questions asked. I will never know how that particular group of refugees with whom I shared a plane ride came about their ticket to America. Maybe they were spared a perilous boat crossing, a long journey on foot. Maybe what they were fleeing was so horrific that a consular officer said “Come”.

I wish the US were willing to take on more. Italy and Greece are bearing the brunt of this seismic population shift. Most of the men and women who reach those shores alive don’t want to stay but European policy dictates that migrants must remain in their first country of arrival while their applications are processed, a life of limbo that can stretch many years and burden states that do not have adequate resources. The European Union moves slowly. Some countries close their borders (we are looking at you Austria) and some, like the US, take on ridiculously low quotas.

Stories of dangerous passages and difficult circumstances abound even in the immigrants’ countries of origin. And yet, they keep on coming. Even under the best of circumstances, integration is often difficult. The cultural differences can be insurmountable but, short of stabilizing a large number of nations in Africa and the Middle East, this wave is not going to stop. Instead of squabbling, closing the borders, setting small quotas and trying to make it somebody else’s problem, our governments should work together, looking for workable solutions. I know, fat chance of that.

The immigrant, the refugee, wherever he or she might come from, has always been the stranger and the strange, the easily blamed for a nation’s troubles, the easy target. So little has changed. So little do we learn. For all my faith in human beings, when I think of the multitude of times history has repeated itself, I despair.

 

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13 Comments

  1. E’ proprio una disperazione. Non è così difficile immaginarsi nei loro panni

    August 4, 2017
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  2. Good reminder. We should all take a field trip.

    July 13, 2017
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  3. Recent history would lead me to believe the human race is not the elevated species it claims to be. We don’t really learn at all. We’re just another animal on the earth with ingrained habits and systems.
    Nice piece of writing. 🙂

    July 13, 2017
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    • The thing is we do have a few features more than your average animal – but what a waste.

      July 13, 2017
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  4. As a fellow immigrant myself, I have so much sympathy for these folks making these quests and find the attitude of the current government appalling. I pray we come to our senses soon and become far more tolerant of those less fortunate. Hope springs eternal the Statute of Liberty ‘s message of ‘give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free…” prevails.

    July 12, 2017
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  5. You know what the dream would be? That we just stopped fighting each other. That countries wouldn’t be torn by wars and its people made to run. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

    July 11, 2017
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  6. Ellie
    Ellie

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Particularly the last paragraph – it sparked many thoughts.
    – I recently had to look over the facts and figures of WW2 and the Nazis for a translation, and I thought of the refugees then and pictured the Allied Forces sweeping across Europe in the aftermath of the worst genocide ever, and of what they – chiefly the US and Britain – stood for then and tried to work out what they stand for now.
    – I read the famous comment “The road to Auschwitz was laid by hatred but it was paved with apathy” (Ian Kershaw) – and would like to think that if we could just get rid of the hatred, then we can deal with the apathy.
    – I’m going to the UK this week and as usual the immigration officer will check my passport and say ‘Welcome Home’ to me too, not knowing that I live in Italy. I have always liked being a free, dual-nationality citizen and…..
    I hope the freedom lasts.

    July 11, 2017
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    • I doubt the UK (or Italy) will ever revoke dual citizenship. It has its benefits, I must say, although I will never be able to set up house in the UK again if I so wished. Or, at least, it will be much more difficult. If I think that my life is what it is because I was able to freely move to England when I chose to, it makes me a bit sad.

      July 11, 2017
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  7. It is sad and frustrating the way history repeats itself…

    July 11, 2017
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  8. winstonmoreton
    winstonmoreton

    Always a compelling read. If they got through Heathrow and airline ticketing then the chances of being turned back at LA are diminished; but under the new regime not by very much.

    July 11, 2017
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    • Yesterday I was at the airport to pick up my mom and I noticed a lonely man holding a sign that read: Welcome refugees/Muslims”. I didn’t see any refugees coming off the Emirates fly. just people with a lot of luggage. Good for him though. Lawyers are camping out at the airports that are points of entry for refugees to help out as needed.

      July 13, 2017
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