Death & Responsibility: Why We Should Care About the Middle East
January 27, 2016 ~ Demetra Szatkowski
3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, dead, washed up on shore. The photo that made everybody suddenly care about the refugee crisis. Or rather, the photo that made some people act, while others shared and said “oh, how horrible,” and then went about their everyday lives.
I want to tell you a story.
The story is about Rob Lawrie, a man from Britain who was almost imprisoned for life because he tried to smuggle a little Afghan girl across the border, to bring her safely to her family.
I want you to imagine that you are Rob. That you become so affected by what is happening that you leave your family to go volunteer at “the Jungle,” the camp at the French town of Calais, where thousands upon thousands of refugees are stuck, trying to get to Britain. Many already have family living in the UK. These people spend their days living in freezing, muddy conditions, without changes of clothes or often shelter or the ability to work or really, the ability to do much of anything at all.
But they are surviving. They have made it all the way from the Middle East, or maybe from Africa. They have escaped their homes, where most were facing almost certain death. They have made the dangerous journey across the sea. They have made it through Greece, through different countries, they have arrived in Calais. And now they are stuck, at this shitty, awful camp, in Calais.
These are people just like you. You might not know that at first, before you get there, but once you meet these people and talk to them you realize that the only real difference between you is the color of your skin, your country of origin. Your luck and your privilege from being born somewhere else.
You are Rob. You arrive in Calais, and you help for a few weeks, distributing clothes and food and doing what other volunteers do. You connect with the refugees. Really, you connect with them more than most people back home because these people, at least, are real. They do not hide parts of themselves, they do not put on acts or create fake appearances. These are people in an unfair, desperate situation, and your ability to see how beautiful they are in spite of it all strikes you, pulls at you.*
You start to bond with a 4-year-old girl. She reminds you of your children back at home. She follows you around the camp, and you make her giggle. You meet her father, who tells you they are from Afghanistan and her name is Bahar. Her mother is missing, back in Afghanistan.
Her father asks you if you will take Bahar with you, back across the border, where she can join other family members already living close by. You say no, because it’s illegal.
He asks again and again. You say no. You become closer with Bahar, are worried about her surviving through the freezing winter, here in these gross, unsanitary conditions at this camp. Her father asks again. You finally agree.
As you leave, other refugees sneak into your van without you knowing and you get pulled over and caught, accused of smuggling and maybe even child trafficking. You are thrown in prison. Your life falls apart.**
I wonder, what would you do if you were Rob?
I don’t know what I would do if it were me. Would I break the law to rescue a child?
Does this make Rob a criminal or a hero?
Are the people who snuck Jews into their homes during WWII criminals, or heroes?
I was in a strange place emotionally, today. I finally went to bed early, thought maybe I was getting sick. But as soon as I closed my eyes, I could only see the articles shared all over my newsfeed all day about what is happening in Europe. EU ultimatum. Greece given six weeks to close their border with Turkey.
I thought back to other things I’ve written about the crisis, and I had a moment where I pushed them out of my mind, not wanting to think about it – and then realized what I just did. What I have been doing. How, while I have still been keeping myself informed, the emotional impact has seemed like too much and so I have detached in a way from feeling anything toward it at all. I don’t want to read what I wrote. I don’t want to remember the gentleness of the people or the kindness I was shown or the terror that I heard about firsthand. I don’t know how to be involved without being there and so I push the emotional parts away, the parts that make me feel things. The parts that make me upset and stir me to action.
And so I lay half-asleep, noticing how my physical body just wants to rest but my mind is working overtime, now, creating phrases in my brain. And I think about it more and the hopeless enormity of the whole situation and I want to cry, and so I write, instead.
Why have we come to a place in time where we are putting up walls and sending out bombs to kill people instead of helping them? Why are we living in a world where killing people is easier and cheaper and more useful than taking care of them?
Why threaten to shut Greece out of the EU? Aside from the stupidity of it all (it’s a sea border, the EU wants to use the Greek navy – what, will they just kill everyone who attempts to cross?), what is the point? Are millions of people supposed to stay in Turkey? Are millions supposed to now stay just in Greece?
I won’t even address the arguments about refugees staying home, fighting for their country, or anything even remotely related to that about why we need to keep them out of Western countries because I have still not heard one argument that is not either unintelligent, misinformed, or rooted in racism. I’m not going into that, here.
The message we are sending now, the message Western countries are sending is this: it’s not our problem.
And that makes me want to scream because in reality, this is our problem, that we created, and we have a moral responsibility to help fix it.
That’s what everybody reacts to. America didn’t do anything! How could you say this is the fault of America! How could you say this is the fault of Western countries?!
And I’m not surprised by it. Why would you know about the Middle East? I was never taught history about the Middle East. I knew about the Taliban from a Toby Keith song and I imagined Afghanistan to be a desert with some camels and people covered in fabric. I didn’t know Syria was even a country, a few years ago. Why would you know? Why wouldn’t you get defensive?
I learned about the Middle East now from articles and from going to Greece to meet people myself. I learned from talking to a friend, who made the area his major in college. I continue to learn, because it is awful, unbelievable information.
I am going to extremely summarize to you why it is our fault and therefore our responsibility. If it doesn’t quite make sense, I encourage you to look it up. Search it out. You’ll find the information if you look for it.
At the end of World War I, Western countries, mainly Britain and France, got to draw new borders and create the countries of the Middle East. They drew them because they got to mandate them, and so when they drew these imaginary lines, they drew them in accordance with the stores of oil they knew existed. They paid no attention to the communities of people already living in this area. They didn’t care about splitting up cultures or forcing different cultures to form to new laws. They cared about getting along with the new governments they set up so that they could have access to oil.
Let’s make the summary even shorter and say that this began the destabilization of the area, from the beginning. Don’t worry, America gets involved, too, invading different countries, changing leaders because of oil, like puppets in a play. We give weapons to rebels fighting against Russia, because we want Russia to lose. We destroy peace and the economy in different places (you can contact me for details if you want them, this is a summary.) People don’t like us – what a surprise. 9/11 happens. We retaliate, invade Afghanistan and Iraq. People start uprising in the extremely oppressive communities in the Middle East. Fighting ensues in many places. Civil wars. Different bigger countries funding groups because of different political interests. Yes, ISIS starts and grows, too. But there were so many things wrong before ISIS.
I’ll make the summary more concise: Western countries decided we were more important and more powerful than these people, these “uncivilized” communities in the Middle East. We wanted their resources. We did anything and everything we wanted to get them. We still do. We don’t care about the actual human beings just like us who live there. We prefer to not think about them. We prefer to pretend the Middle East is full of nothing worthwhile, nothing human, at all.
And it’s easy to do it when you have nations of people who don’t even learn about that area of the world. Don’t teach them. You have people who only know what you want them to know and so you spread hate and fear and blame and those people are the ones who vote, who put you in office. Worse still are the people who think the system is so hopeless that they don’t get involved, who choose to do nothing at all, who don’t vote because why bother. Who think we will never change the world.
People continue to die, over there, and we go about our lives here, not worrying about the fact that this is history repeating itself all over again. We shut the screaming cries of humanity out; there is nothing we can do, so we don’t care.
And I’d like to end on a hopeful note, but I won’t, because I feel just as hopeless as you. The only thing I do hope is that more people feel encouraged to learn, to share. That more people get involved and begin to care about something other than themselves. That you share this information. That maybe one day the energy shifts from being privileged and self-centered to being a little more open and having a human interest in the rest of the world.
*I am taking a bit of creative liberty here; I do not know Rob or know what he was thinking at the time. I have read his story, both his version and the version reported in the media, and that is where the main facts come from, but emotionally I am speaking from my own experience in Greece.
**Luckily for Rob, the online community of volunteers joined together, creating petitions and showing up in court to protest his conviction. Rob was eventually let off with a fine (after his wife leaving him and a suicide attempt, among other things.)