I have now written a few pages in my notebook, and I realize how difficult a post it is to write — just as difficult as the issue it pretends to address. I am way out of my writing comfort-zone right here.
I know very well what kind of article I don’t want to write. This is not going to be a political article (at least I hope so and I will do my best to keep my own political views at bay). It is not going to be a productive brainstorming article to solve the issue of welcoming the refugees and even less to solve the terrible issues that made them leave their land in the first place. I would feel like a complete fool if I wrote something like that: I have absolutely no expertise whatsoever.
Tons of articles have been published online about the Syrian refugees. About how refugee-bashing is not right, about who these people really are (refugees, not migrants), about the way politicians grabbed hold of the subject and will not let go. Many of these articles already formulate reasonable and well-developed arguments to change the mindset of people who have been recently ranting about the refugees; and about the fact that we should not let them come to Europe.
I’d like to step into the conversation with a more personal letter to these ranting — and I think, scared and angry — people. If any such person is reading me right now, please note: this is not going to be a sarcastic article. I’m not going to tell you that you are a fool, nor that you should just shut the fuck up.
It all started with a friend of mine. At work, he received a letter (not a personal letter, just a letter to the company) from a guy who’d been late paying his bills. That guy refused to pay the penalty, and suddenly went on a rant about how he was an honest French worker who’s never been late paying his bills before, and why the hell was the government helping those refugees and not people like him?
Now while some of you, readers, might find some sense in what this guy was trying to say, needless to say that some of you might also have rolled their eyes in contempt. So did my friend, who in return went on a rant about what an asshole that guy was. Well, of course, I thought so too and I ranted along. And maybe he actually is an asshole. And maybe not. Who knows? But then I thought: “This guy must be really unhappy”. Why would someone take the time to sit down, write and send such a letter if they were not genuinely unhappy, frustrated, angry and feeling that their situation is unbearably unfair? Maybe that unhappiness and anger had nothing to do with the Syrian exodus in the first place, but they were sure lashed out at the refugees.
Taking such an extreme case as an example might be perceived (and quite rightly) as intellectual dishonesty, so let’s talk about less extreme cases: people around you, around me, who are in fact sincerely worried about the consequences of this sudden massive arrival of people, and who are also angry that some politicians are so quick at giving these people a hand while — yes — so many people in Europe are already living in poverty and sleeping in the street.
In France, this issue is driving some people crazy and the political debate about it is escalating very quickly. There have been talks about closing our frontiers, signing out of Schengen… France has a past with racism and xenophobia. I’d even push it as far as saying that it also has a present.
So here are 4 statements I’ve heard from worried and angry people, along with what I’d like to tell them face to face — maybe not to change their minds, but to ease the stress and anguish they feel. For I believe that the second might help the first in its process.
1. “There might be terrorists among all those refugees”
Well yes, of course there might! I’m not going to tell you that you are wrong (I only know that I don’t know). Actually, come to think of it, the world sucks, doesn’t it? Those refugees, ISIS, Ebola, poverty, rapes, dictators, climate change… Did you notice how every single one of these things makes the fact that you can actually live in this world even more spectacular? We are living in a tremendously dangerous world, where the greatest personal menace comes from our fellow humans. Imagine your country is a room. Is closing the door going to be of any help? Closing the door, basically, means locking people out, and locking yourself in. Now who is supposed to be the most scared by that prospect?
Continue to live. To be. No matter how corny it sounds, love and care for the people who share your life: you’re lucky to have them. And, thinking of the Others, those who do not share your life but who sometimes step in (a new friend, or a local homeless, or a Syrian refugee): some of them might be lucky to have you. Just being, just living your life helps people, because you are one more rock jutting out of the sea. We’re all swimming from rock to rock, really — and I’m not writing that down as a lame metaphor for the exodus that is taking place right now.
2. “We can’t afford to help these refugees”
Yes, the economy is not good. I’m not going to tell you something like “why blame the refugees while banks probably damage your life to a much larger extent?”. That would be too easy: one does not discuss an issue with statements that cannot be falsified. So let’s agree with this: “we” can’t afford to welcome, say, 100 000 refugees.
But “each of us” can afford to spare some change (even 10 cents) or food (even one bag of flour) or clothes (you know which old sweatshirt I’m talking about!) or a smile (I’m dead serious) for one family. And depending on how many there is of “each of us” (probably at least a few dozen millions), maybe we can afford to welcome 100 000 refugees after all. And if you value your own well-being more than theirs (that’s ok, I can understand that), here’s a thought: when you feel (like the guy in my friend’s letter) that you can’t afford whatever you want, but you also realize that you can actually help other people who just can’t afford anything, then you feel much richer. As a matter of fact, you are. You matter — while you thought you didn’t, as more public attention is being paid to their problems rather than to yours.
3. “We should focus on our poor”
That’s the thing with this world: there are poor people all over the place (I know how that sentence might sound, but please do not read any irony in it: I’m writing that very matter-of-factly). And you’re right, we can’t help everyone. And actually, we won’t. But poverty comes in bulk: you can’t really sort it into types or units. It’s a bit like the world around us: you can’t sort the people you’re going to meet or pass in the street. Anyhow, this time I’m going to be more serious and I hope I’m not going to sound too sanctimonious:
You are on a dangerous slope here.
I know: people have been telling you that and it sounds offensive because, do they think you’re an idiot? But they might be right. The few times in my life when I’ve been wanting to sort which person I wanted to be around and which I wanted to keep at bay, I’ve ended up unhappy, less safe and miserable. Every time, it totally backfired. People are all interconnected. At some point of your sorting (sooner than you think), you’ll reach a limit where you won’t be able to tell if the person answers your criteria for inclusion or for exclusion. You’ll include that specific poor person like I’ve included that specific friend. You’ll proceed like so, from poor person to poor person. But this poor person you’ve included will be connected to that other poor person, who this time will not quite match all of your criteria for inclusion. Which of your criteria will matter the most then?
Origin? Religion? Virtue? Soberness?
Owning or not owning a smartphone?
Here is what will happen: you’ll start building up your own personal scale of poverty, which invariably will transform into a personal scale of virtue. Let me spare you any suspense: you’ll end up fighting your own contradictions, getting angry and helping no one. “The dangerous slope” I mentioned refers to a very common endpoint: judgement, escalation, racism, radicalism, fundamentalism — in fact, the very things that you dreaded to find among those refugees in the first place (see statement number 1 above).
If, before the waves of Syrian refugees, you were helping “your poor”, then, by all means, proceed: nobody is asking you to stop. If the waves of Syrian refugees made you conscious of the situation of “your poor” and you are now willing to help them, then, by all means, go ahead. But don’t start sorting people and building scales. Helping people is enough work, and in the end it has much less chance to make you unhappy, worried, or angry — a lot of people tried and they can tell.
4. “These people are ungrateful. I’ve seen them scowling, fighting and refusing food”
Ouch. Yep, that’s what people do. They tend to be ungrateful sometimes. They don’t see the blessings and they focus on the wrong, the depressing and the infuriating. Actually, maybe they hate you, you fucking Westerner. “What did you do to have such a great life? You were just fucking born!” Yep, some of the refugees might think that, especially after crossing both sea and land and losing their house. Or maybe they don’t: maybe they were doing just as well as you do, owning a house and a nice car, until half of their family got slaughtered. But if they do despise you, let’s be honest: aren’t we all despising someone else? Especially someone whom we don’t know, whom we don’t understand and whom we are a bit (let’s admit it) scared of?
If you help people for the sake of gratitude, then don’t help them in the first place. You’ll end up miserable. When we own a lot, or when we have some valuable skills, we often expect people to be grateful for our time and help. If sometimes they are, they often aren’t (I mean, they say thank you and then they just take off and stop keeping in touch. So did I a few times in my life. And so did you). The thing is, if you decide to stop helping people because they are ungrateful, then your skills aren’t valuable anymore, and you don’t own anything anymore. People on the receiving end are what makes whatever one has to give valuable, or even real. That’s the whole point of helping. So if after reading this you still consider that helping these people is a downright con, then don’t help them, and don’t help anyone else either. Or, my suggestion: help everyone. Be valuable.
Ok, I’m done. This wave of refugees is massive, much talked about and graphic. But it’s not the first one and it won’t be the last. There are poor people all over the place, and terrorism has always existed
(yes it has.)
and will continue to exist. It seems that finding a reason, rational or lame, to harm and make people miserable isn’t a difficult achievement. The only reason why the world is still standing is because there are also happy and helpful people. At this very instant, some jerks are digging the world’s grave, throwing other people inside. While that grave is growing wider and wider, these people are trying to get out, sometimes furiously, angrily, and frighteningly.
Don’t be of those who grab a shovel. Grab a hand instead, and pull.
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