A spectre is stalking Europe. And that spectre, from Brexit to the election of the 45th U.S. president, is casting its ominous shadow across the globe.
From the comfort and safety of my home, I have the privilege to luxuriate in a view of unparalleled beauty—of the vast expanse of the Mediterranean Sea set against the backdrop of the Atlas Mountains. I am greeted by the glittering waves lolling against the rocks and soothed by the gentle buzz of the motors of leisure boats and the low mewing of seagulls flying overhead.
Taking in the fresh sea air, I feel refreshed and renewed. This view never fails to instill a sense of hope in me, or to induce a sense of security and a feeling of calm.
And yet, in spite of this beauty, there’s a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that I can’t ignore—I feel conflicted.
I am acutely aware that this experience of the sea that is so seductive to me, represents downright horror to others.
My gaze fixed across the waters, I can’t help but think of Afghans fleeing persecution from the Taliban, young Eritreans running from military conscription and forced slavery and Syrians fleeing a brutal civil war, all hoping for a better, safer life in Europe. They hope that the inhabitants of the civilised world, of the people who have it all, would absorb them into their web of material wellbeing and security.
I can’t help but think of all of those who perished in their attempts to live a life of dignity. Life for those who aren’t mercilessly swallowed by the gaping mouth of the Mediterranean, is a struggle for survival.
Those successfully arriving in Europe have been extended a frosty welcome by governments, underpinned by widespread fear, prejudice and a total lack of empathy. As a result, families have had to resort to camping in tents on waterlogged ground in the freezing winter.
Others have been placed in detention centres and locked away like common criminals—out of sight and out of mind. Whatever their situation, many have seen their human rights grossly violated and most don’t even have access to basic necessities like food, water, clothing or shelter.
I’ve had to quickly scroll past photos in my newsfeed documenting the extent of the horrors these people have to endure. I’m talking about images of men sewing their lips together in the Calais Jungle (before it was demolished last month leaving over 10,000 people displaced with 1,022 unaccompanied children among them) in protest when their human rights were violated. I’m talking about images of women who have given birth on dinghies at sea. I’m talking about images of tiny babies being bathed in puddles.
My heart aches at the mere thought. My soul aches. Tears are flooding my eyes as I write this. No one should have to experience this. No one.
As a global community, how can we tolerate this treatment of our brothers and sisters? Surely if, in some cruel twist of fate, we found ourselves in these circumstances, wouldn’t we want someone to reach out to us? Wouldn’t we want to know that someone was looking out for us and our children? Yet, on the whole, the violation of human rights these individuals have to endure has been met by acute apathy from the world.
Unfortunately, images depicting the suffering of others have been normalised and a lot of us who view them from the comfort of our sofas find ourselves inert with compassion fatigue, others are immobilised by bigotry and xenophobia and, for others still, the reality of the suffering of others is undermined by the inane reality TV shows following the news report or by a shift in tone by the news reporter who needs to turn their attention to the soccer analysis of the day.
These reactions don’t sit well with me.
How can any of these options be considered an appropriate response to the humanitarian crisis that is only just beginning to unravel itself? Experts warn that it’s only going to get worse.
I’ve been following the development of the refugee crisis for over a year now, and it’s been interesting to examine how mainstream media has dealt with its coverage. I feel it has a lot to answer for in how it has shaped our response, globally, to the crisis.
Initially, we were presented with a “migrant crisis.” To my mind, the choice of words here is important. The term “migrant,” in Europe and Britain especially, is politically charged and has been used derogatorily for years. “Migrants” have been depicted as the scourge of society, as “scroungers” who are sucking the benefits system dry and have been accused of taking jobs that would have otherwise been given to locals.
Some journalists have taken the liberty of employing a range of toxic metaphors—most notably “cockroach migrants” comes to mind—and undisguised, blatant dehumanisation to appeal to a right-wing readership. By describing displaced individuals as “migrants” as opposed to refugees, various printed publications have been instrumental in firmly casting refugees in the role of the “other” in society; of creating a cultural dichotomy between “us” and “them” thus feeding an unhealthy, nationalistic fervour which has slowly, albeit predictably, metamorphosed into outright xenophobia.
The Economist has observed that the new divide in politics is no longer between left and right but between open and closed borders. In America and Europe “the politicians with momentum are those who argue that the world is a nasty, threatening place, and that wise nations should build walls to keep it out.” In light of this, it comes as no surprise that so many people lack the motivation to help displaced individuals who find themselves, through no fault of their own, in such dire circumstances.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, develops this idea a step further. She argues that there is also a danger in branding displaced people as “refugees” because it presents an incomplete picture of who they are. I understand her rationale.
These people are refugees in the same way that some of us are married or divorced—these terms refer to something that has happened to us or something we did at some point in our lives, but it does not define who we are.
When we fail to recognise the complex strands from which identities are woven, dehumanisation and objectification are able to take root and flourish in communities. Stereotyping is a way of hijacking someone’s biography. It reeks of disrespect and of a lack of compassion.
When these are the principles that underpin your perception of a person or a group of people, it’s easy to feel removed and disconnected from them. This, in turn, makes it much easier to turn a blind eye when they are wronged, regardless of their degree of suffering.
This is the position in which we now find ourselves.
If, as Adichie says, “it’s our moral imperative to help refugees,” we’d do well to start helping by recognising that these people are mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, students, teachers, homeowners, athletes, dancers, writers. They are also resilient, determined, vulnerable, loving, frustrated, caring, scared people.
They are people.
Not cockroaches. Not hordes. Not plagues. Not vermin.
I know how tenderly I love my own daughter and that outpouring of love I’ve been able to offer since I birthed her, I can’t help but extend to the children of others. I can’t sit by apathetically. Inaction is simply not an option.
This is how my work with The Worldwide Tribe (TWWT)—a grassroots organisation committed to supporting displaced individuals who now find themselves in Europe—began.
Since August, I’ve organised talks to raise awareness within the local community as well as in the school where I work. As a result of these talks, dozens of individuals have been moved to take action: one group are creating christmas cards and directing the proceeds of the sales to TWWT; two of my students are doing a sponsored 10 kilometer run; the proceeds of the pre-natal yoga class that I co-teach are being directed to TWWT who will ensure that female refugees requiring pre and post natal care receive the treatment and support they deserve.
You don’t have to be a yoga teacher, a school teacher or a writer to help. You could take cupcakes into your place of work and ask for a small donation in return. If swimming is up your street, why not try a sponsored swim? If that doesn’t interest you, perhaps attempt a sponsored walk. Or why not throw a great, big party? If you’re not able to fundraise, you can always raise awareness about the issue—share a post or have a conversation that promotes understanding and tolerance. It’s really that simple.
There is an unprecedented humanitarian crisis unfolding on our doorstep and our actions now will determine the quality of the vibration of the planet in the future. Inaction will lead to physical, mental, emotional and psychological distress on a global scale. We will all suffer. Therefore, let’s move forward consciously, with empathy and kindness as our priorities, knowing that we are all connected in our desire to be loved and respected.
Be confident that even one person can effect tremendous positive change in the world.
The power lies in our hands.
For more information, visit The Worldwide Tribe on Facebook and follow the incredible work they do and see how you can be a part of it too.
Author: Anne Marie Morello
Image: Marco Panzetti / SOS Méditerranée
Editor: Katarina Tavčar