Chair, YWCA Scotland — The Young Women’s Movement
By the time she’d reached the refugee camp where I was working the nightshift, she’d walked 17 kilometres from the Serbian border. Carrying her 4-month old in her arms, her shoes were sodden and caked in mud. There had been heavy rain in Croatia that week and the ground in Opatovac Refugee Camp was flooded. A heavy fog had descended, cloaking much of the camp and limiting visibility. It was also freezing. That was the night she’d become separated from her husband in the crowd.
Witnessing someone cry out at their most fearful, at their most desperate and stressed, is deeply personal. It’s a moment that should remain unmined and unexamined and unexploited but that night, I found myself privy to hers. There’s no training course or a text book that can teach us how to be empathetic and compassionate. There’s noflow-chart that shows you how to navigate someone’s terror and grief.
I situated her and her baby in one of our heated Mother/baby areas, got her a cup of tea and a new pair of size 6 shoes, and began radioing the Red Cross to begin the process of finding and reunifying her with her husband. Her baby was wailing. She was completely overwhelmed. She sat down and began to sob. When I put my arm around her, she jerked but then reached out to hold my hand.
We sat like this until someone reported back that they’d found her husband.
As soon as they were reunited, I walked them to the departure point where people were being loaded onto buses to the Slovenian border. Her baby was warm. His tears dried, his tummy full. He was peacefully asleep.
“She says to tell you thank you for the shoes and your kindness,” said one of the camp’s interpreters.
Kindness is currency. I wish I could have said that more awaited her now she was ‘safe’. Now that she was in the ‘civilised’ West. But I couldn’t. I’d seen the news. Waiting for her were tanks and a heavily militarized Slovenian border. Kindness wasn’t going to be readily available or guaranteed anywhere. Borders were being shut across Europe and a 2,500 person limit per day was in effect in Slovenia. Because of this lack of coordination and inaction, thousands were left to sleep outside like animals. As temperatures across Europe continue to plummet, thousands will continue to sleep outside because of the EU’s abject failure to put humanity ahead of hubris.
And the worst part is the large majority know they’re not wanted by anyone, anywhere. They have smartphones. Several of the camps and border points have Wi-Fi. This is displacement in the 21st century after all. They’ve read what we’ve read and seen what we’ve seen.
“I’m nothing. No one will help me.” said a 17-year-old from Afghanistan, still very much a boy but dismissed as an ‘economic migrant’ at best and a ‘terrorist’ at worst.
“When we’re in Germany, will it get better?” asked an 8-year-old Syrian girl while playing in safety, perhaps for the first time in months, in our child-friendly space.
“Why do they treat us like animals?” cried a young father following a heated altercation with police in the camp.
I have no answers and no explanations.
The people I met in the Balkans, the ones now being used as political footballs by woefully (and willfully) uniformed American politicians, will never call United States home. Under the current UN resettlement process, they’re not eligible for UN resettlement in the United States. Only those formally registered as UN refugees in camps throughout the Middle East and recommended for resettlement will ever be considered for placement in the US. To suggest otherwise in an effort to purposefully foment fear is morally repugnant. It’s very sad to me that these ambitious and powerful people are so determined to ‘make their mark’ on the world, that they don’t care if that mark is another scar on those who already bear too many.
Safety and compassion are not elements of a zero-sum game where ensuring these things for others means there’s less for you and I. They are constitutionally-enshrined, inalienable rights. Rights upheld by International Law and long-signed treaties borne out of situations we swore we would never let happen again.
As a country – as a society – very little of how we define ourselves has ever come from the powerful; it has always come from those without power. These are the ones we have built our value-systems around and the ones who continue to collectively inspire us. We are duty-bound to protect that. To allow the current political trend to continue unchecked is a black mark against us all and it will holistically work to make us ‘less’. Our borders can never be stronger if our inaction has made us morally weaker.
Xenophobia is, undoubtedly, the gateway drug to racism and racism is still America’s most potent social disease. Like Albert Einstein, a refugee to the United States, said many years ago, “Racism is America’s greatest disease. I can escape the feeling of complicity in it only by speaking out.” Shun the silence. Speak out.
We can do better than this.
Laurie Gayle is an aid worker with Save the Children UK and was recently deployed to Croatia as part of the Refugee Crisis in Europe . She is originally from Fort Worth, Texas and lives in Edinburgh, Scotland where she is currently Chair of YWCA Scotland – The Young Women’s Movement. You can follow her on Twitter at @lauriemgayle.