Meditating On The Diversity and Complexities of Refugees and Refugee Lives: Introducing “Not Only” into Our Vocabulary
An essay to policymakers, journalists, and youth.
The “refugee” is infused with charged emotions, thoughts, and opinions about people from distant lands. It is a term that divides, unites, evokes emotions of fear and solidarity, and influences the outcome of political futures. Yet, while we feel, opine, and act strongly in response to refugees, how many of us apprehend the complex phenomenon of refugees as a whole and the lives of refugees themselves, the people we talk for and about? If we want to keep democratic debate vibrant as well as seek truth, practise empathy, and enact responsible citizenship, how we see, understand, and imagine refugees and refugee lives matter. But how should we do so?
A plethora of ways come to mind. We can consume news, read scholarly migration books, watch documentaries, and for the data geeks among us, analyse statistical figures. We can also read memoirs and news written by refugees or speak to refugees directly. By doing so, we may come closer to understanding the plight, flight, and rights of refugees. But as one who has imbibed from these sources, I have learned two useful words to understand refugees and refugee lives: “not only”.
“Not only” signals incompleteness. It signals more than meets the eye. It signals complexity. It signals the need to pause and think. It signals that we only know in part.
Refugees as Suffering Victims
Let me explain. Refugees are commonly thought of as suffering victims. Humanitarian images of suffering children and women are ubiquitous. The iconic 1993 photo of “The Vulture and the Little Girl” taken by Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Carter epitomises suffering and victimhood of the refugee. More recently, the image of Kurdish-Syrian boy Alan Kurdi lying dead on the beach near Bodrum, Turkey heartbreakingly shook our hearts and minds as well as compelled urgent political action in Canada and the United Kingdom. Refugees are victims of persecution, conflict, human rights violations, ethnic cleansing, and war. They are people who have experienced horrors and trauma that the everyday person wishes not to see. They are also victims of political apathy.
Refugees as Resilient Survivors
Yet, refugees are not only suffering victims, but they are also resilient survivors. Recently, there has been a pushback against the victimhood narrative to instead emphasise the abilities, agency, and knowledge of refugees. This is important, as we know that refugees around the world, past and present, have done incredible things despite living through difficult circumstances. Following Hitler’s rise, Eva Frankfurther, a German-Jewish refugee, fled to the United Kingdom in 1939. She found work as a counter-hand and dish-washer at Lyons’ Corner House in Piccadilly where she met and painted beautiful figurative portraits of her West Indian, Irish, Cypriot, and Pakistani co-workers. Her portraits are a compassionate window into the delicate emotions and inner lives of other newcomers as well as a testament to her sense of camaraderie with those in exilic situations. Similarly, Jewish-Polish refugee Josef Herman, whose family perished in the Holocaust, fled Warsaw to Glasgow and later to a Welsh mining village in the 1940s, where he painted “stark, sombre, and luminous” images of hardworking miners and mining scenes. Asad Abdullahi is a Somalian refugee who has experienced unthinkable violence, poverty, xenophobia, and pain in his journey to South Africa, and yet he continues to hustle, move on, and take active steps toward a better future. Jonny Steinberg, his biographer, writes: “he is a person with an enormous appetite for risk”.
Refugees as Living Vessels Carrying People, Places, and Memories
Stories of victimhood may compel us and stories of resilience inspire us, but refugees are not only suffering victims or resilient survivors. They are also living vessels carrying people, places, and memories. They come from and enter into intricate and vibrant worlds worth describing and piecing together. With a tender tinge of nostalgia, Iranian-American refugee Dina Nayeri writes in her memoir about growing up in “fairytale” Ishafan, Iran and the yellow spray roses, swimming pool, and the papery hands of her nanny, a ninety-year-old village woman, of her childhood. Having fled the UK after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, George Szirtes wrote melancholically in his poetry collection Reel about the streets of Budapest, the smell of rotting fruit, and its trains and cars.
Syrian and Yemeni refugees today are fleeing from and experiencing conflict in humanity’s most ancient civilizations and sites. As Jackie Abramian writes, Damascus is a historic home to one of the most progressive cities in the world, where people of all religions coexisted and co-governed. Syria was also an archaeologist’s paradise, a world heritage home to some of the world’s most prized cultural jewels and treasures. Socotra, a Yemeni Island, used to be home to one of the oldest Christian communities.
Elsewhere, Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish refugee who wrote his autobiography through WhatsApp while being incarcerated in Manus Island, found himself on an island home to the tiny native bird Chauka. The Chauka, or the Manus friarbird, is at once a beautiful symbol of identity for indigenous Manusians and a cruel symbol of torture for refugees for it is the name given to solitary confinement cells in Manus’ offshore detention centre. On the one hand, Chauka’s singing informs local Manusians the time of the day. On the other hand, it reminds refugees of the painful and unjust reality in which they live. By being attentive to the worlds refugees come from and enter into, we can get a better sense of their past and present realities—and also grasp what is at stake for refugees and for our common humanity.
Causes and Consequences of Refugees
In our endeavours to comprehend the causes and consequences of refugees, “not only” is important too, especially for policymakers, who have the unenviable task of deciding how resources are distributed justly. One common way of distributing resources is to distinguish between ‘economic migrants’ and ‘refugees’ based on the respective drivers of each group. Indeed, this distinction is sensible if the world is clearly divided between those driven by economic interests and those who are fleeing contexts of persecution and violence. One can think of big business owners, consultants, corporate workers—and sometimes international students and humanitarian workers—as having economic motives without protection needs. But beyond that, the world is not so black-and-white, and not only are refugees often driven to seek livelihoods and economic gain as well—why not when they have been robbed of their lives, income, and relationships—they also need the compassion and leadership of states who can provide them refuge and redress. The urgent need to overcome this binary is obvious when we look at the Venezuelan refugee crisis, where refugees are fleeing not only because of violence and persecution, but also hyperinflation, poverty, and a collapsed healthcare system. The only certainty amidst the medley of drivers, economic and otherwise, for Venezuelan refugees is that they need the critical protection and coordination of near and far away states and societies. These two categories also proved unhelpful when Zimbabweans, who were facing economic collapse, famine, drought, and generalised violence, fled from Robert Mugabe’s collapsing state in the early 2000s, only to be denied safety and sanctuary. Most of us have complex motivations for why we do things—why we choose a particular career path, why we vote for a certain party, why we spend our time a certain way. So why not refugees when they flee?
During the 2014 and 2015 refugee crisis, the UK’s media and tabloid papers focused on the ways in which refugees are cultural, linguistic, economic, or security threats to the population, more so than papers in Italy, Spain, and Switzerland. Today, security fears around refugees continue to inform restrictive public policies in countries in the Global North, even though these fears are largely overblown. No doubt there are individuals with refugee or migration backgrounds who commit crimes and misdeeds for various reasons. But to paint a broad stroke of blame onto all refugees or to use the crimes of a few to enact restrictions for the many is unjustifiable. It is also dangerous. A more balanced view is needed, and we need to similarly recognise the many ways refugees enrich our cultural, artistic, intellectual, and community lives. I have previously talked about the artistic successes of Eva Frankfurther and Josef Herman. But there are also others with refugee backgrounds like M.I.A, Maya Youssef, Basel Zaraa who have brought beauty and creativity to our shores. Hannah Arendt, a Jewish-American refugee, continues to be one of the most important political theorists read in our universities today. Not only in this sense is about highlighting in an integral manner the consequences refugees can bring to all of us. Instead of scapegoating refugees, the responsible policymaker needs to lead by emphasising human security for all—both citizens and refugees—and creating systems for all to thrive.
What I am ultimately saying is this: Like you—and me—refugees are never defined by a single story. By inscribing “not only” into our vocabulary, we can then uncover rich layers of refugees and refugee lives to hopefully arrive at a place of sonder—a place of realisation that everybody around us, even strangers, are living a life just as vivid and complex as yours and mine.
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Joshua is a post graduate studying for his Masters in Social Anthropology at Oxford University. He researched and wrote this essay as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.