I was asked, only a few days ago, a question, “Can you help me understand what it’s like to be a Syrian refugee?”. The question was a benevolent one, commendable, even. She was writing an article on the subject for a school newspaper and wanted to ask someone who may have a better idea than her.
I read the email; read it again. I know that the world’s loudest voices are currently partaking in a discourse regarding the bedraggled humans reaching the West’s coveted shores. Could I partake in that discourse, in just the smallest manner? Dilute the ignorance, the rhetoric, the ill-founded judgements. Could I aid in alleviating the West’s affronted behaviour when all that war, pain and desperation we see neatly tucked inside our boxes in the living room comes suddenly crashing through our borders speaking a foreign language and smelling of sea salt?
I attempt to remain pragmatic; much of the debate around the subject cannot be ignored in favour of golden ideals. Germany opening its borders to migrants perhaps only fuelled an illegal trade, many of the ‘refugees’ crossing into Europe are indeed young men without families and could be economic migrants and Britain taking thousands of refugees with a preconceived, arbitrary regulation to remove them at the age of eighteen is not a long term solution. It would only lead to the same individuals being culturally stranded, bereft of protection all over again and perhaps I do prescribe to the school of thought that the West would be better to invest its financial capabilities into securing tangible, robust support systems in neighbouring countries rather than receiving refugees at all.
I try to conceptualise the notion of resources; I see Jordan, relying on political deference to retain a water and gas supply it can’t afford to lose. I see poor Jordanians lacking in education, linguistics and even basic amenities who are seeing vegetable prices soar and the country’s cultural makeup shift since an influx of migrants. I hear them complain, I hear them struggle to understand why they are only one of two Arab countries accepting any altruistic burden. Their schools are groaning under the weight of incoming pupils and their taxi fares are pushing them onto public buses. The West, comparatively, has resources.
I read the email again; “What’s it like to be a Syrian refugee?” The only answer I had was no answer at all.
Scanning my class of Syrian widows who have fled the war, I realised that I could not possibly know. I could not know what it was to lose my husband, my uncles, my brothers, my sons; in Arabic culture, to lose the rudder to my ship. I could not know what it was to lose the country that I love dearly – and they do – to a war bigger than me and greater than I care to understand. I could not understand what it was to lose my security, stake and status in society, safety, possessions and everything and everyone I had known. To know that my children aren’t receiving the education they need or deserve and are psychologically damaged beyond the help I am allowed to obtain. To forget the taste of drinkable tap water or the cheese I used to hang in my courtyard that I’ll never taste again. To mourn, as they tell me, each day for the country and family I lost.
Instead, I told her what I did know. What a Syrian refugee is like; human. They laugh, make fun of me, I make fun of them, they build what they can from what they have, they forgive me for my differences and mistakes, regardless of how alien my tendencies are to them – “aadee” they say; “normal”. They patiently help me to learn Arabic, kindly cook me huge meals and politely smile a, “delicious” when they taste my suspicious-looking carrot cake. They worry about their children. They live in hope; to return, to recapture their existence, a lingering desperation that one of the greatest modern civilisations will be restored, indifferent to the actualities.