(documentary’s most down below)
A unos pocos kilómetros de la pequeña ciudad fronteriza serbia de Sid, un rastro de tierra a través de campos de maíz y nabos sirve de paso a decenas de mujeres, hombres y niños que buscan refugio y una vida con mayores posibilidades. El cruce fronterizo no oficial entre Serbia y Croacia está rodeado de campos verdes iluminados por el sol, con huertos de manzanos a la distancia y una calma que trae un respiro temporal a quienes han estado en ruta durante semanas y hasta meses. Por un momento, los viajeros logran dejar de lado la amenaza de fronteras militarizadas y recientes recuerdos de condiciones deshumanizantes a lo largo del camino cuando se detienen a beber jugo de manzana recién exprimida que reciben de manos de un granjero del lugar, conversar y descansar antes de seguir.
Los padres cargan niñitos en los brazos, a bebés más grandes en la cadera y en la espalda llevan mochilas que contienen las posesiones rescatadas de vidas interrumpidas. Narin, maestra de Mosul, duda cuando ella y su grupo de sobrevivientes, yazidíes y kurdos iraquíes, se acercan al solitario auto de la policía de fronteras que está estacionado en el punto donde un campo de maíz en Serbia se convierte, pocos metros más adelante, en un campo de maíz en Croacia. “Cada paso que nos alejamos de Iraq, de las masacres de nuestro pueblo y de los que dejamos atrás, ha sido difícil”, dice. “Esto parece demasiado fácil —ya hemos olvidado lo que es sentirse a salvo”.
Fatima, embarazada de su tercer hijo, llega exhausta, pero a pesar del calor, el polvo y la distancia recuerda excursiones familiares a la aldea de su padres en Siria. Mohammed Ali, su hijo de tres años, corre por delante. Está usando sandalias veraniegas, pantalones cortos y un chaleco que le queda grande, que lo esconde detrás de unicornio azul con demasiado relleno que le entregaron voluntarios en otro cruce fronterizo. “Nunca suelta ese unicornio”, dice Fatima. “Le da de comer, duerme a su lado y le cuenta historias de nuestro viaje”.
Mahmoud, estudiante palestino del campo de refugiados de Yarmouk en Damasco, sosteniendo la mano de su sobrinito, dice: “Este es nuestro destino. Estamos pasando por lo mismo que pasaron nuestros abuelos y nuestros padres. Pero con cada generación, con cada exilio, quedamos esparcidos más lejos de casa”.
Después, durante las siete horas que pasan en medio del calor esperando que sus nombres sean registrados por la comparativamente solidaria policía fronteriza croata, Mahmoud canta canciones de pérdida, de lucha y de amor a quienes están sentados a su alrededor.
Desde el amanecer, los buses llegan, llevando un continuo flujo de personas que buscan refugio de una multitud de situaciones que involucran guerra y conflicto, persecución y precariedad general. Sin embargo, una constante entre todos es la sensación de desplazamiento y a menudo vulnerabilidad, expresada en palabras y preguntas y pedidos de confirmación, en la tensión de los hombros y apretadas inhalaciones de aire mientras regresan dolorosos recuerdos del pasado —distante y reciente.
A Kamaal y Sabiha, pareja kurda de mediana edad de Mosul los acompaña su primo, el circunspecto Jamaal, que lucha en el camino de tierra con muletas. Kamaal estaba en el hospital recuperándose de un ataque al corazón cuando Mosul fue tomado por ISIS hace más de un año. Él, Sabiha y su hijo mayor se apresuraron a ir a casa, y encontraron que la habían saqueado y que sus cuatro hijos adolescentes no estaban, incluida su hija de trece años. Se quedaron en Iraq buscándolos casi un año antes de partir, con la esperanza de que tal vez su búsqueda será más efectiva desde afuera. Cuando caminamos, Sabiha empieza a llorar. Su esposo pone los brazos a su alrededor, y sus propios hombros se sacuden. Después cruzan la frontera tomados del brazo, con Jamaal saltando a su lado.
Los jóvenes, los ancianos, los que están en silla de ruedas cargados por amigos y familia, los heridos, familias, viajeros solos, parejas jóvenes que se toman de la mano desembarcan de los buses en un tranquilo pueblo de frontera en Serbia y viajan los siguientes kilómetros a pie hacia otro pueblo fronterizo en Croacia. De ahí, del degradante, exhaustivo caos de la estación de trenes de Tovarnik, expuesta a la intemperie, al bien organizado y acogedor campo de descanso manejado por voluntarios que está al lado, o en un campo de procesamiento recientemente establecido administrado por el gobierno, esperarán largos días al transporte que, ojalá, los llevará más cerca de sus destino final —y a los parientes, amigos o redes de apoyo que esperan a algunos ahí.
Luego, cuando empieza a caer la noche, los que llegan expresan inquietud y dudas. El camino no está marcado, salvo por la presencia de un grupo de voluntarios, y los caminantes que buscan la confirmación de que el camino y sus alrededores realmente están libres de minas terrestres, que no serán detenidos, que no enfrentarán brutalidad policial, relatos que les han llegado de quienes estuvieron varados en Horgos y Roszke en la frontera húngara.
Debajo de un sorprendente cielo estrellado nocturno, Khalid, bisabuelo circasiano de 77 años de edad de Quneitra, acompañado de sus parientes, camina con un bastón y rechaza educadamente nuestras ofertas de ayudarlo con la gran bolsa que carga en la espalda. “Sigan confiando en ustedes mismos y en los demás”, aconseja a sus compañeros de viaje. “Somos fuertes y enfrentaremos cualquier dificultad que tengamos por delante pues ya hemos enfrentado de todo en este viaje”.
Un grupo de mujeres eritreas y un viajero solitario del Congo comparten una bolsa de naranjas entre todos. “Hemos viajado de más lejos y estamos más acostumbrados a las dificultades de viajar y caminar largas distancias”, dice Mariam, estudiante de enfermería de 22 años. “Somos jóvenes y fuertes pero es tan difícil ver sufrir a todos esos niños”.
Un muchacho iraquí suplica a su padre, que ya está cargando al hermano menor y el equipaje, que lo cargue. Sus pies, como los de muchos otros, están con ampollas y en carne viva, cada paso es doloroso. Llora y ruega, y luego llora en silencio cuando su padre disculpándose lo pone más adelante, preocupado de que la frontera cierre y los deje varados. Llevamos al muchacho a la carpa médica, que curan y vendan sus pies. Luego avanzan hacia la noche.
A Zaynab y Mustafa, dos niños en silla de ruedas, los llevan a través de los campos con sus familias en una camioneta de voluntarios. La madre de Mustafa habla sobre las dificultades que han atravesado en las últimas semanas. El sobrecargado bote inflable con el que cruzaron el mar Egeo a Lesbos se empezó a hundir, y para mantenerlo a flote los últimos cientos de metros antes de la costa, se vieron obligados a librarse de todo exceso de peso posible, así que arrojaron sus posesiones por la borda. Tuvo que convencer al resto de pasajeros de hacer una excepción con la pesada silla de ruedas de Mustafa. Durmiendo en las calles y en campos temporales hace que tenerlo limpio sea imposible. “Siento que le estoy fallando”, dice. “No puedo cambiarlo ni bañarlo con frecuencia, y él se avergüenza cuando tengo que hacerlo sin privacidad”.
Rima, joven siria estudiante de derecho de Alepo, que hace poco ha tenido un hijo, Syrian, acompaña de Hiba de ocho años, que acaba de quedar huérfana. El resto de la familia de Hiba vive en Suecia y la está esperando. Mira a su alrededor, con los ojos abiertos, a los centenares de personas que caminan a su lado por los campos. Las estrellas y la delgada luna en cuarto creciente no son suficientes para iluminar el camino, y los caminantes dependen de las luces de teléfono móviles para ayudarlos a mantenerse juntos cuando algunos parientes van más despacio, exhaustos de sus viajes y por los miles de kilómetros que muchos ya han cubierto a pie.
Para muchos de los que cruzan, el viaje está lejos de terminar, y están muy conscientes de las fronteras muy vigiladas que deben cruzar, de las humillantes condiciones que aún deben soportar. Pero la resiliencia, el coraje y la fuerza de los que buscan refugios es enorme, mientras caminan por estos campos, por los caminos y a través de fronteras que los llevarán hacia posibilidades ansiadas que les permitirán reconstruir vidas de dignidad.
Caoimhe Butterly es organizadora, activista de justicia migratoria y estudiante de posgrado irlandesa. Ha pasado 14 años trabajando con movimientos sociales y proyectos de desarrollo comunitario en América Latina, el mundo árabe y en otros lugares.
Translation by Global Voices
“The coastal road of Eftalou on the island of Lesvos, Greece, is lined with olive groves, fig trees and the detritus of the daily passage of thousands of refuge-seeking women, men and children. The coastline is littered with deflated rubber dinghies, piles of life-jackets stuffed with styrofoam, sponge or dried grass, abandoned sodden outer garments, and the occasional toy or memento carried across the sea and lost in the rush to keep moving.
As the sun rises and glints off the Aegean sea, the horizon is dotted with dinghies already en route, making slow progress through the turbulent waters. Guided on to shore by volunteers, boat passengers stumble and wade through knee-deep water, clutching children, elderly people, salvaged ruck-sacks, and each other. Overwhelmed with relief, they embrace, cheer, weep, bow down in prayer or sit in shaken silence. Calls are made to reassure family members still in camps and communities in Syria, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Turkey, Eritrea, Somalia and elsewhere, that they made the crossing safely, that they’re alive, that they’re together.
Fatima, a teacher and mother of two young boys collapses on reaching shore, crying and momentarily struggling to breathe. Mahmoud, her eleven-year old son, kneels and cradles her as we loosen her head-scarf, calming her with reassurances that that they’re all safe and that he loves her. “On the dinghy, I held all of my fear inside of me so my boys wouldn’t see it,” Fatima explains later. “But they are older than their years. I hope, somewhere, that they can live the childhood that was denied to them and that I can re-build our lives”.
Ahmed sits on the rocks, his trembling legs failing him, surrounded by his grown children. Sawsan, his eldest daughter, holds his hand. Walking the six kilometres to Molyvos later, however, he revives despite the relentless heat and admires the lush agricultural fields, flowering trees and preserved ruins of a fortress in the distance. His two teenage sons had been detained and flogged in Raqqa, and when they were eventually released he decided to leave Syria—a decision, he says, that he found devastating. “There was no other option,” Ahmed says. “I raised my children to reject sectarianism and to have deep respect for all religions. We saw a brutality and inhumanity that I could no longer protect them from and I knew we had to leave”.
Lara and Haya, teenage hip-hop devotees, walk alongside us with their brothers. Their father, Ehab, is recovering from the open heart surgery he underwent the month before, a healing scar visible on his chest. He walks slowly, pausing frequently for breath, until a volunteer convinces him to accept a lift, reassuring him that his children will be safe and will follow him to the nearby rest-camp. As the group continues along the dirt road and the sun rises higher in a cloudless sky, the youngest decide to go for a swim. They jump off the rocks fully clothed and float on their backs in the now calm waters. They laugh, gesturing shyly at the sun-bathing tourists on the beach, wondering what they’re thinking, what they understand of their disparate group, thrown together by circumstance and now connected by deepening friendships as they journey together.
Canyar, a Kurdish musician from Kobane, Syria, sits and rests with his family and comrades. He has brought his instrument, a tanbur—a long-necked lute—and little else. “My music is my resistance,” he says. “I play songs to honour our fallen, those who died defending our people, and to celebrate life, our traditions and culture, too. My music is how I contribute to the struggle of my people”.
Salwaa, a compassionate, competent and multi-lingual Afghani university student in her mid-twenties, moves between groups of fellow travellers from Kabul, Kunduz and Mazar-i Sharif, assisting those who need help. She translates for a volunteer paramedic as he examines the painful feet of Karim, a Hazara school-teacher and diabetes-sufferer who has been walking for weeks with his family. He has deep tissue necrosis in both feet and will, it seems, have to undergo a double-amputation. “I couldn’t translate that,” Salwa says. “I couldn’t destroy his hopes. They will tell him the truth at the hospital, but I cannot”.
Later, outside a dusty parking lot where new arrivals wait for the infrequent buses that will take them to processing camps in Mytilene, a familiar laugh reunites us with Wissam, a Palestinian journalist and resident of Yarmouk refugee camp. Our last encounter was in 2007 in her work studio, in happier times, and we embrace and reminisce. She points to her son and brothers next to her, their clothes still damp and encrusted with sea-salt from the crossing. “Our world has been turned upside down—everything has changed in such a short space of time,” Wissam says.
Their dinghy had begun to sink when they were still far from shore and they had to throw anything that wasn’t essential overboard, including their water-logged, heavy ruck-sacks. “The seas are not only the graveyard of our bodies,” she reflects, referring to the thousands of those seeking refuge that have drowned over the past year, “but also of our memories—of our photos and belongings and the small things we brought with us to remind us of home.”
Days later, many of those we’d encountered when they first arrived are still waiting in camps in Mytilene, at the port or sleeping in the streets as they wait for the reception papers that would allow them to continue their journeys. The conditions are degrading, there is little, if any, humanitarian infrastructure in place, and each day they wait long hours at the port, enduring verbal insults and occasional baton-charges by port police. “It’s all so humiliating,” Sonia, an architectural student from near Damascus, says. “We really weren’t expecting this. We thought that if we lived through the sea crossing that that would be the hardest part of the journey completed.”
Accounts of the militarised borders still to be crossed filter back by word-of-mouth and through virtual chat groups. Marwan, one of the youths who paused to swim while his family were making the trek to Molyvos, gestures to the crowds of exhausted, patience-worn-thin fellow travelers around them at the port and says wryly, “If I knew we were hurrying only to get stuck here I would have stayed in the sea for longer and stopped to admire the views along the way”.
That night, we take Sonia and her group of fellow students to a celebration at Pikpa, a community-run solidarity camp that provides rest and refuge to the ill, injured and particularly vulnerable amongst those seeking asylum. Efi, a co-ordinator and tireless volunteer, dances surrounded by a group of little girls, all trying to hold her hands and attention. “We learn from their strength and we try to create a community that gives us all some dignity,” she says. A group of musicians, activists and volunteers from the Welcome to Europe network sing songs of border-less solidarity, of belonging, of ferries not Frontex, and of welcome.
Sonia sits on the ground amongst the children and their parents, her tensed shoulders relaxing and the weight of the anticipation of the days and weeks to come temporarily lifted. Mohammed, a thirteen- year-old from Aleppo, gets up and takes the mike. Under a beautiful night sky, surrounded by survivors, he raps about resilience and endurance and their long journeys. His audience joins in and, for a moment, his face is incandescent.”
“A few kilometres away from the small Serbian border town of Sid, a dirt track through corn and turnip fields serves as passage to tens of thousands of women, men and children seeking refuge and lives of more possibility. The unofficial border crossing between Serbia and Croatia is surrounded by sun-lit verdant fields, apple orchards in the distance and a calm that brings temporary respite to those who have been on the road for weeks or months. The threat of militarised borders and recent memory of dehumanising conditions along the way is temporarily kept at bay as those walking stop to drink freshly pressed apple cider handed out by a local farmer, chat and rest before they continue on.
Small children are carried in the arms of parents, toddlers on hips, rucksacks with what has been salvaged from lives interrupted, on backs. Narin, a teacher from Mosul, hesitates as her group of survivors, Iraqi Yazidis and Kurds, approach the lone border police car stationed as a corn field in Serbia a few metres onwards becomes a corn field in Croatia. “Every step away from Iraq, from the massacres of our people and those we left behind, has been so difficult” she says. “This seems too easy- we’ve forgotten what it is like to feel safe”.
Fatima, pregnant with her third child, arrives exhausted but despite the heat, dust and distance, reminisces about family excursions to her parents village in Syria. Mohammed Ali, her three year old son, runs ahead in flip-flops, shorts and an over-sized vest, dragging behind him a blue over-stuffed unicorn given to him by volunteers at another border crossing. “He never lets go of that unicorn” Fatima comments “he feeds it and sleeps next to it and tells it stories about our journey”.
Mahmoud, a Palestinian student from Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, holds the hand of a young nephew and states “this is our fate- we are experiencing what our grandparents and parents experienced. But with each generation, each exile, we are being scattered further away from home”. Later, during the seven hours spent waiting in the heat for their names to be registered by comparatively engaging Croatian border police, he sings songs of loss, struggle and love to those sitting around him.
From sunrise onwards the buses arrive, bringing an ongoing flow of resilient survivors and travellers from a multitude of contexts of war, persecution and precarity. A constant amongst all, however, is the sense of dislocation and often vulnerability expressed in words and questions and sought reassurances, in the tensing of shoulders and tightly inhaled breath as painful memories of the past, and present, are recalled.
Kamaal and Sabiha, a middle-aged Kurdish couple from Mosul are accompanied by their cousin, the dignified Jamaal, who struggles down the dirt road on crutches. Kamaal had been in hospital recovering from a heart attack when Mosul was taken over by ISIS/Daesh over a year ago. He, Sabiha and their eldest son rushed home to find their home ransacked and their four teenage children gone, including their thirteen year old daughter. They stayed on in Iraq searching for them for almost a year before leaving in the hopes that perhaps they will be more effective in their search from outside. As we walk, Sabiha begins to cry and her husband puts his arms around her, his own shoulders heaving. They cross the border later, arms linked, Jamaal limping beside them.
The young, the much older, those in wheelchairs carried by friends and family, the wounded, families and those on their own, young couples holding hands disembark buses in one quiet border town in Serbia and walk the kilometres ahead into another in Croatia. From there, in the weather-exposed, degrading and exhausting chaos of the Tovarnik train station, the more effectively-organised and welcoming solidarity volunteer-run rest-camp next to it and in a recently established government-run processing camp, they will wait difficult days for transport that will hopefully take them a step closer to their final destinations- and the extended family, friends or support networks that await some of them there.
Later, as night begins to fall, apprehensions and doubts are voiced. The path unmarked except for the presence of a handful of volunteers, those arriving now seek reassurance that the path and surroundings really have been de-mined, that they will not be detained, that they will not face the possibility of police violence, accounts of which have filtered back from those who were stranded in Horgos and Roszke at the Hungarian border.
Beneath a star-filled, striking night sky, Khalid – a 77-year old Circassian great-grandfather from Quneitra- is accompanied by his extended family. He walks with a walking stick and politely refuses our offers of help with the large bag he carries on his back. “Continue to trust yourselves and each other” he advises fellow travellers “we are strong and will face whatever difficulties lie ahead of us as we have faced everything else on this journey”.
A group of Eritrean women students and a lone traveller from Congo share a bag of oranges between them. Mariam, a 22-year old nursing student, says “we have travelled from further away and are more used to the hardships of travelling and to walking long distances. We are young and strong but it is so difficult to see how all these children suffer”.
As we speak a young Iraqi boy pleads with his father- already carrying his younger brother and luggage- to carry him. His feet, like those of many others, are blistered and raw, every step painful. He sobs and begs and then cries silently as his father apologetically pulls him onwards, worried that the border might close, leaving them stranded. We take him to the medical tent and hurriedly dress and bandage his feet before they continue on into the night.
Zaynab and Mustafa, two children who are both wheelchair-users, are ferried through the fields with their families in the van of volunteers. Mustafa’s mother speaks of the difficulties they’ve faced over the past weeks. She had to convince others in the over-crowded rubber dinghy they travelled in across the Aegean sea to Lesvos, not to throw Mustafa’s heavy wheel-chair overboard. The over-weighted dinghy had begun to sink and those on board tried to keep it afloat for the final hundreds of metres to shore by getting rid of whatever excess weight they could. Sleeping on the streets and in temporary, degrading camps makes keeping him bathed and clean impossible. “I feel like I am failing him- I cannot change or bathe him regularly- and he feels very embarrassed when I have to do so without privacy” she says.
Rima, a young law student from Aleppo and a mother herself, accompanies 8-year old Hiba, recently orphaned. Hiba’s remaining family live in Sweden and are awaiting her. She looks around, wide-eyed, at the hundreds of people walking with them through the fields. The stars above and thin crescent moon are insufficient to light up the path and those walking rely on the lights of mobile phones to stay together when family member slow down, exhausted by the journey behind them and the hundreds of kilometres many of them have already covered on foot.
The journeys of many of those making the crossing are far from over, and there is acute awareness of the increasingly securitised borders to be crossed, and the humiliating conditions still to endure. The resilience, courage and strength of those walking through the fields, down the roads and through the borders that will take them to hoped-for possibilities of re-building lives of dignity, however, cannot be over-emphasised. It is a journey, and struggle, that all of us need to more urgently- and effectively- accompany, learn from and amplify.
At the entrance to Pikpa, a solidarity community of respite and refuge on Lesvos island, eleven orange fluorescent life jackets are hung on a low wall. Each one has a letter on it painted in black, together spelling out ‘Safe Passage’. Inside, the wounded, those too ill to keep on travelling and the families of those who would still be alive were it not for the lack of a safe and just way of seeking refuge in Europe, are received with warm welcome and practical support.
As they wait for the cold bodies of their children, partners, parents, friends and comrades to be released back to them for burial, those left behind grieve in an environment that, though deeply empathetic, lacks so many of the familiar rituals of the collectively-assumed mourning of home. Without extended family, friends or those who knew him while still alive to hold her as she grieves, Fatima endures the days following the burial of her young son. The family in the wooden shelter next to hers speak quietly about her visceral, all-consuming grief, “We can hear her crying every night. It makes us hold on to our children tightly. We know how lucky we are to be able to build a new life without so much pain. We can leave this island, but part of her, and the other families who lost children, will always stay here”.
Amer is nine years old, from Aleppo, and is travelling with his seventeen-year-old brother Ahmed. Both are being held in a fenced-in, pad-locked enclosure for unaccompanied minors in Moria, a barren hill-side former detention centre. Now a processing camp or Frontex-mediated “hot spot”, it is a registration-point for non-Syrians forced to wait up to ten days in degrading, often humiliating, conditions. Many of the thousands of Afghani, Eritrean, Malian, Iraqi, Iranian, Somali, Pakistani, Moroccan and other families and individuals here endure the wait in an adjacent muddy field which lacks the most basic of humanitarian infrastructure. It is a discriminatory division based on nationality and ethnicity which is now being implemented at other crossings and is being aptly described as a ‘humanitarian caste system’.
Ahmed describes holding Amer afloat after the boat they were crossing in sank. “We were surrounded in the water by so many people. To begin with everyone was panicking, and yelling. The colder it got though, the less energy we had and I could only hear silence. I didn’t know who was alive or dead.” They were rescued by Spanish Proactiva volunteer life-guards, “It was like being given another chance to live. When they pulled us from the water I had no strength left, for me or Amer ”. As they speak through the closed fence, other children and youth gather around them. One of them, Sara, sixteen years old from Eritrea says “We faced death and hardships on so many parts of our journey and now here, waiting, we feel like we’re in a prison”.
Further North, the flimsy dinghies and wooden boats of those seeking refuge continue to arrive. The morning after the Paris attacks, the seas are rough. Shortly after sunrise, a larger boat arrives close to the shore in Eftalou. With no way to disembark other than to jump into the turbulent water or to lower themselves down onto the shoulders of waiting life-guards and volunteers, some of those on board panic. We wade in waist-deep to receive a woman who is being lowered down over the side. Paralysed from the chest down, Salwa from Shingal in Iraq later describes the massacres that she and the Yazidi families on board have survived. They have no extended family or support structures awaiting them as they continue their journey onwards. When asked where they are heading once they leave Lesvos she says, “Wherever we can feel safe again, wherever our children can live without having to hide their identity.”
Later, near Skala Sikaminias, a dinghy arrives with over 50 members of the same extended family on board. They are Kurds from Kobane and Afrin, survivors of the siege and massacres that exiled their communities. They wait on the shore and in nearby olive groves for another boat on its way carrying more of their relatives and friends. Many of those waiting are shaking with cold, the foil emergency blankets draped over their shoulders rendered ineffective by the sodden clothes underneath. The older children take turns using a volunteer’s binoculars, straining to try to pick out the dinghy that carries the rest of their group from amongst the seven now visible on the horizon. Another volunteer- well-meaning but increasingly insistent- gestures to them to begin the walk to an up-hill transit camp. Kurdistan, a young woman who was involved in community defence organising during the siege asks us to translate, “Please thank her, but tell her we need to stay to wait for our family and our comrades. We never leave our people behind”.
As the sea calms and the day grows steadily warmer, those waiting begin to relax, confident that the rest of their group will cross safely. Greek activists from a near-by solidarity camp arrive with bread, fruit and welcome. The dinghy carrying the great-grandmother of the group we are sitting with is spotted and they run down the shoreline to receive it, carrying her and others onto the beach. Her grandchildren and great-grandchildren surround her, kissing her hands and forehead. Her hennaed hair partially covered by a flowered headscarf, she gathers the youngest ones onto her lap.
Also on board is Miriam, an elderly Palestinian woman originally from Haifa, more recently Yarmouk refugee camp. She is soaked up to her chest and clutches her medications and an address book, carefully wrapped in plastic, containing the telephone numbers of her sons and grandchildren in Sweden. As we assist her to a place where she can rest, she showers blessings on our hands, on our children, on our homes. Her daughter, a civil engineer, remarks, “This is our fate, a life spent in exile, moving from country to country, from refugee camp to refugee camp”.
As night falls, and during the nights following, those arriving are more visibly panicked. Soaked, cold, many in shock and aware of how close their dinghies came to capsizing, they hold their children close. Mothers and fathers often break down and cry, apologising to each other and to their children for having risked the perilous crossing. All express overwhelming relief at having ‘made it’, at having arrived in a context that they hope will offer them refuge, and respect. It is a relief which is painful to witness, as the news of the further militarisation of borders, of racism, riot police and rising xenophobia filters back through the accounts of those who have journeyed onwards. As those disembarking struggle to adjust to the dislocation of their new lives, they struggle, too, to maintain dignity throughout a journey in which humiliation is a common experience.
It is a journey in which the decision to attempt the crossing is one taken with acute awareness of the images of washed-up bodies on shore-lines, of medics kneeling around the frail bodies of small children, trying to resuscitate them as their parents wait in suspended agony. It is a decision in which loved ones link arms, hold hands and fatalism creeps in. It is a decision in which there is little choice.
It is a journey that we, collectively, have to more effectively accompany. It is a journey in which the death-defined borders and increasingly perilous routes undertaken by those seeking hoped-for refuge, are an indictment on so many of us. It is a solidarity that deconstructs the Saviour complexes that too often undermine it. It is a journey that necessitates the recognition of the strength, the agency and the self-empowerment of those we are attempting to accompany. It is a solidarity that needs to be grounded in honesty and humility and that does not further erode the dignity of those we accompany.
It is an understanding of ‘refugee’ as an experience, not an identity for those who refuse to reduce down their lives, dreams and diversity to a de-personalised, homogenising label. It is a discourse that challenges the false dichotomies of ‘worthiness’ used to undermine migrant communities on the move. It is a journey that recognises those who we are walking with as the unbroken, though momentarily vulnerable, survivors that they are and that commits to echoing and amplifying that resilience. It is an affirmation that we cannot afford to leave any of our people behind.
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/168356063″>The Camp- Eko</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user49847365″>Caoimhe Butterly</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>