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.