In the west, the idea of the ‘refugee’ has become a political one. As everything else which is touched by political interests, its conception seems to be fragmented into two irreconcilable opposites. Those on the right are usually more skeptical about the possibility of harmonious refugee integration. Are they people who want to defend a country and its traditions from external threats or just self-interested xenophobes? On the left, there is a tendency to be more open and enthusiastic when it comes to refugees and immigration. Are they people who understand that basic humanity transcends national boundaries or just sentimentalists with no understanding of actual reality? Social media, TV, newspapers; they address one side or the other - the counterpart does not exist - and of course, whichever side we belong to is the rightful owner of truth. You have to pick up a side; and pick it fast. Pick your ‘friends’, pick your ‘enemies’, pick your whole prepacked theory of how the totality of reality works. If you don’t, what will you hold on to? What will you think?
Uprootedness ‘is by far the most dangerous malady to which human societies are exposed, for it is a self-propagating one’ writes Simone Weil. The French philosopher dedicated her life to study and remedy the suffering of those under the yoke of oppression - political, material or intellectual. Critical of any violent enterprise, she understood that uprootedness not only tore people from their land and their communities, but also from reality itself. Weil noticed that humans have psychological and emotional necessities - “needs of the soul” as she calls them. The need for roots is a necessity of the soul; it gives us a narrative, a history, a sense of belonging and of community. Without it, calling ourselves human loses its meaning - we become mere ‘things’. So, what happens when people are uprooted against their will? What happens when a higher force takes away from you that which is most essential in your humanity? How do you get back to taking roots?
In the meantime, far from the world of abstraction, refugees are bouncing between the borders of Belarus and Poland; they won’t let them get into one, they won’t let them get into the other. Is it Poland’s fault? Is it Belarus’? Both? none? The temperature there right now, at 13:32 on December the 9th: -5 degrees. The group of trapped refugees consists mostly of people from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. A one-year-old Syrian boy was among the 13 people reported to have lost their lives due to exposure to the cold. Coming from these countries, it is not hard to imagine that their odyssey is now, at least, some years old. It is hard to imagine the things they went through. But the point of this very short article is not to dwell upon unfair suffering, nor to “wake you up”, nor to convince you about anything. This is just a short and simple celebration of human resilience - a resilience that is objective and that is to be admired by whoever comes in contact with it, no matter what political opinions the person holds. This is a celebration of the resilience that will hopefully take the people trapped in the forest past all the insurmountable obstacles into a place where they can become rooted again.
Based on multiple studies in psychology and mental health refugeehealth.org writes: “Before being forced to flee, refugees may experience imprisonment, torture, loss of property, malnutrition, physical assault, extreme fear, rape and loss of livelihood. The flight process can last days or years (...)” The article continues: “Perhaps the most significant effect from all of the experiences refugees endure is having been betrayed, either by their own people, by enemy forces, or by the politics of their world in general. Having misanthropic actions of others become a major factor controlling the lives of refugees has significant implications for health and for their ability to develop trusting interpersonal relationships, which are critical to resettlement and healing. ”
In the face of severe and systematic adversity, when all hope is lost, a person can become invaded by resentment and bitterness. These two can become the engine propelling every one of their actions. When life becomes so full of suffering that we think not being may be better than being, the most terrible of human actions become possible; a person turns revengefully against the fact of being itself, and the person will not rest until he has his revenge. Opening a history book is enough to see the all-pervasive consequences of resentment.
The stories of refugees allow for such bitterness to arise - they are deprived from their humanity repetitively, on and on. Going back to Weil, they are uprooted and deprived of their essential humanity. However, against all odds, these people transcend bitterness time after time. We encounter so many of them fighting towards integration, learning new languages, becoming functional parts of society, and standing for what they believe. This shines forth, at least to me, as one of the most incredible features of humankind - it does not matter whether you're from the left or the right. I will shortly tell you about two such cases.
Don Emeke is a Nigerian immigrant in Sicily. In 2015, the Sicilian Mafia, working alongside the Nigerian gang, ‘black axe’, tried to recruit him. Emeke did not allow it. They tried to kill him. When you see him now (he appears in one of vice’s YouTube video) the scar of his encounter with the gang runs across his face, his left ear and both his arms. Testifying against the Mafia is something very few Italians dare do - they are afterall the most powerful criminal organization in Europe. Emeke arrived in such a precarious state from Nigeria, that he had no means to defend himself - or to live for that matter, which says much about how he could have used the ‘easy’ money he declined. When he was asked why he testified against the gang, this was his answer:
“I don't lead that kind of life; I won’t live that kind of life. If I don’t go there and testify, they will do this to another person, If I testify they won’t do that to another person.”
Emeke’s trip from Nigeria to Italy is the most dangerous of the refugee routes - it involves crossing sea and desert. Emeke suffered, he might have been uprooted, but in this act of sheer morality he recovers the humanity that was taken away from him - despite all the bitterness he could feel, he acts as if he owed the citizens of his new home by standing up against the mafia itself.
And that brings us to our second story. It is a simple story, and I want to only focus on a statement. Lumah Mufleh runs a refugee NGO in the United States. In one of her videos, she talks about three Afghani children that changed her life - Rohullah, Noorullah and Zabiullah. These children escaped the Taliban with their parents. Their father was tortured. The kids wove rugs for 10 hours every day to support their family while being under 10 years of age. Lumah says that what she finds the most incredible about them is that, despite all the death and suffering they have lived, what she sees of them “every day is hope, resilience and determination. A love of life and appreciation to be able to rebuild their lives.” Resilience, sheer gratuitous love in response to infinite suffering - suffering transformed to proactive action through love. Of all things human, I find this to be the most incredible.
These kids, as many others, created for themselves a new opportunity to take roots against all odds. This force transcends all analysis, opinions and politics. If I would propose anything in regard to discussions refugee related, it would be for this admiration and understanding to be the common ground for all political debate. You can thereafter think whatever suits you in relation to policy - living in a democracy, such differences should be encouraged (which we do not seem to be doing very much lately). By sitting in front of my computer I am in no position to make any claims whatsoever, especially regarding an issue of such complexity. However, I do think that bearing the stories of these refugees in mind, pondering on their resilience and strength, should be the beginning of our discussions - no matter what party you vote for.
Ignacio is a Master's student in Modern Languages at Oxford University. He researched and wrote this article as part of his micro internship organised by Oxford University Career Services.