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In yesterday’s Guardian an article by Ai Weiwei resonated strongly with the basic principle of the oneness of humanity that is at the core of the Bahá’í Faith. Below is a short extract: for the full article, see link.

At this moment, the west – which has disproportionately benefited from globalisation – simply refuses to bear its responsibilities, even though the condition of many refugees is a direct result of the greed inherent in a global capitalist system. If we map the 70-plus border walls and fences built between nations in the past three decades – increasing from roughly a dozen after the fall of the Berlin Wall – we can see the extent of global economic and political disparities. The people most negatively affected by these walls are the poorest and most desperate of society.
. . . Can physical borders stop refugees? Instead of building walls, we should look at what is causing people to become refugees and work to solve those conditions to stem the flow at its source. To do so will require the most powerful nations in the world to adjust how they are actively shaping the world, how they are using political and economic ideology – enforced by overwhelming military power – to disrupt entire societies.
. . . Establishing the understanding that we all belong to one humanity is the most essential step for how we might continue to coexist on this sphere we call Earth. I know what it feels like to be a refugee and to experience the dehumanisation that comes with displacement from home and country. There are many borders to dismantle, but the most important are the ones within our own hearts and minds – these are the borders that are dividing humanity from itself.
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Arta Dobroshi

Arta Dobroshi. Photograph: Matt Carr/Getty Images

Yesterday’s Guardian had an interesting piece by  about Arta Dobroshi. It shows the link between Arta’s new short film Home, which premieres in London this weekend, and her early life. I must try and catch the film when I can. Below is a short extract of the article: for the full text see link.

‘Just have fun,” Arta Dobroshi’s parents would say to her and her brothers as they were growing up. “Every day they said it: don’t worry about things – just have fun.” What made their attitude extraordinary was that they were living in a war zone. But alongside dodging bullets, and being forced out of their home into refugee camps, her parents never stopped being happy, positive and full of hope for the future.

“Whatever we were faced with, my parents knew that the most important things you have to give children are hope, laughter and joy.”

But it wasn’t easy – and it isn’t easy now for the millions of refugees who, like Arta’s family in Kosovo in the 1980s and 1990s, were either living with constant danger or fleeing from it. “Life would be normal for a while and then, suddenly, we’d be running down the road, chased by the police. Or there would be teargas coming into the classroom. Several times we had to leave our home to live elsewhere because it was too dangerous to stay. When we were really up against it, I remember thinking: if only the people who live in freedom knew what we were going through, they would certainly help us.”

Today Arta is an acclaimed film actor but she has never forgotten how it felt to be caught up in a war, or how sure she was that if people only knew, they would act. Which is why she’s made Home, a short film that premieres in London this weekend and is designed to do the thing Arta always believed would make all the difference: to put the lucky people into the unlucky people’s shoes.

The film follows the fortunes of a family with two young children who are forced to leave their home. They have to pay people smugglers to take them in car boots – the kids in one, the parents in others. There’s fear and violence. The couple are forced at times to carry their traumatised children across fields and through battle-ruined buildings and at one point have to run for cover when they find themselves in the middle of fighting, before eventually winding up, dirty and frightened and hungry, sitting around a fire in a refugee camp.

It’s a familiar tale, but here’s the twist: the family isn’t Syrian or Afghan – it’s British.

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Hair before

Before

I was definitely in need of a haircut.

Not a big deal really. No need of an anaesthetic. Not like the dentist can be. I was in town anyway so I popped into my usual salon. I was a bit disconcerted to find that, for the second time within a matter of months, my favourite hair dresser had disappeared into the unknown.

‘Who else is there?’ I asked of the couple behind the reception desk, she blond, he dark, both smiling.

‘How do you like your hair cut? Clippers or scissors?’ he asked.

I paused, never having been asked this question before. ‘Well, it’s been scissors every time so far.’

‘Ah, that’d be Isabella. She’s the best with scissors.’

I made the appointment for the following Thursday, curious to find out more.

The day arrived and I needed to decide what book to take to read as I waited.

It was a hot day and the two books I’m reading at the moment are heavy tomes, in every sense of the word ‘heavy.’ It didn’t seem a good idea to lug either of them down to town in my shoulder bag.

Where was some light reading, I wondered?

Poems would be good. I stared at the relevant shelves. How about Edwin Morgan? I took down his Selected rather than Collected Poems. A weight issue again. His poetry didn’t match my mood of the moment. I put him back for another time.

Then my eyes lighted on a slim volume with a brown cover, my favourite shade of brown: Derek Walcott’s The Prodigal.

I’d bought it in March 2005 and remembered reading it with great pleasure. I could only recall one phrase from the whole book: ‘this infernity of ice.’ I’d borrowed the word ‘infernity’ to use in my own poem Uncertain Death. This choice felt promising. I opened the book and skimmed the first page.

In autumn, on the train to Pennsylvania,
he placed his book face-down on the sunlit seat
and it began to move. Metre established,
carried on calm parallels, he preferred to read
the paragraphs, the gliding blocks of stanzas
framed by the widening windows –

I was hooked. Not only did the book look and feel physically beautiful, except for the lurid blue of the flyleaves at either end, but the evocative flow of the lines drew me irresistibly in.

I had a few minutes to sit in the garden at the dimpled glass table with a coffee, immersing myself in the opening sections, before I had to set off.

He exactly captures the reverie of a train journey:

There was sweet meditation on a train
even of certain griefs, a gliding time
on the levelled surface of elegiac earth
more than the immortal motion of a blue bay
next to the stone sails of graves, his growing loss.

Maybe you have to have reached a certain age, as he certainly has, to resonate fully to lines of that kind.

Half way through my coffee I was jerked to full attention by an unexpected section which I had completely forgotten. It comes after his encounter with a woman who feels the horrors of Kosovo[1] were the fault of the Jews:

The tidal motion of refugees, not the flight of wild geese,
the faces in freight cars, haggard and coal-eyed,
particularly the peaked stare of children,
the huge bundles crossing bridges, axles creaking
as if joints and bones were audible, the dark stain
spreading on maps whose shapes dissolve their frontiers
the way that corpses melt in a lime-pit or
the bright mulch of autumn is trampled in mud,
and the smoke of a cypress signals Sachsenhausen[2],
those without trains, without mules or horses,
those who have the rocking chair and the sewing machine
heaped on a human cart, a waggon without horses
for horses have long since galloped out of their field
back to the mythology of mercy . . .

And I reflected sadly that we are too close to being back there again. As he begins to draw this section to a close I read:

. . . now there is a monstrous map that is called Nowhere
and that is where we’re all headed, behind it
there is a view called the Province of Mercy,
where the only government is that of apples
and the only army the wide banners of barley
and its farms are simple, and that is the vision
that narrows in the irises and the dying
and the tired whom we leave in ditches
before they stiffen and their brows go cold
as the stones that have broken their shoes,
as the clouds that grow ashen so quickly after dawn
over palm and poplar, in the deceitful sunrise
of this, your new century.

The ProdigalI looked at my watch. I was cutting it fine. I didn’t want to walk too fast on such a hot day and arrive sweating at the salon. I took my cup inside, locked the back door, even though we’ve never been burgled, and put the prodigal in my shoulder bag.

I walked slowly down to town, enjoying the sunlight on the lime trees at the road side, unencumbered and unafraid.

I reached the salon with five minutes to spare. I walked to the waiting area at the back, a conservatory with corrugated plastic roofing. The sunlight poured in making it something of a sauna.

A girl with blue tattoos checked who I was. I told her and asked if she was Isabella.

‘No, she’s just finishing with another client.’

As I began to sweat in the heat I hoped she wouldn’t be too long. I didn’t get the prodigal out for fear of soaking it in sweat. It is too beautiful a book to risk damaging that way though I don’t mind streaking the inside with yellow highlighter pens.

She wasn’t long. It was only a moment really before a tall woman with a shy manner asked me to follow. Her accent sounded Polish.

Once I had been settled in the black upholstered chair and I was suitably bibbed and tuckered, she fended off my questions about why the staff turnover was so high.

‘Shortage of staff, maybe. I don’t know.’

I shared my perplexity about the scissors/clippers question after hearing the girl at the next chair ask her customer which he preferred.

Isabella had no idea why anyone would ask that question.

I moved onto ask whether the current polarised debate over Europe was a problem for her. Maybe the poem was influencing me subliminally.

I often bump into someone from Poland here, as Hereford has welcomed incomers from that part of the world since the Second World War. There is a large population of their descendants as well as a significant number of others coming in and out, partly as a result of the fruit picking work in summer. I don’t usually ask this kind of question when I meet someone from that background.

‘Some people have strong feelings, yes. Everybody has their opinion. It can be difficult sometimes.’

I launched into a bit of a sermon, as I watched the scissors snip inches off my white and thinning hair.

‘I feel the time has come when we need to stop distracting ourselves from the really important issues like climate change. We can only solve them if we sink our differences rather than increasing them. We’re just one human race and we really need to work together now.’

She smiled and nodded but said nothing.

Hair After

After

She did a good job on my hair. I paid and left, indicating I would see her next month probably. She smiled warmly in her quiet way as I walked out of the door. Maybe she had responded to the positive drift of my pontificating.

As I walked home I was touched by how relevant the passage in the poem was to the reality even of my safe and stable existence. I did not have to look far to find people who might have been wounded by words if not by worse.

A line I came across later shed its own light on the matter: ‘We read, we travel, we become.’ We are more exposed than we ever were to one another across great distances. We need to be careful what we choose to become as a result. Poetry such as Walcott’s can help.

[1] The Kosovo War was an armed conflict in Kosovo that lasted from 28 February 1998 until 11 June 1999.

[2] Sachsenhausen (meaning “Saxon’s Houses”) was a Nazi concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany, used primarily for political prisoners from 1936 to the end of the Third Reich in May 1945.

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StarfishAnyone seeking a better understanding of the European refugee crisis as we rather self-centredly describe it, whether they feel that we should be more welcoming or less, would not find a better place to start than this book.

This accessible and honest account of one volunteer’s firsthand experience of this tragic situation conveys vividly both the complexity of the problem and the depth of suffering it causes. By the end of the book it would be surprising if anyone does not feel strongly that such volunteering, while it doesn’t solve the problem, significantly reduces the amount of suffering it causes, and is in itself therefore intrinsically valuable. It may also trigger more constructive thinking about how the crisis can be more effectively addressed.

It’s clear from the very start that this is not going to be some self-important sermonising tract. A thread of self-deprecating humour runs refreshingly throughout the book and helps to keep us going. We meet it on the very first page:

“Lesvos? Oh, Lesbos! That’s a Greek island, isn’t it? I thought you were going to India!”

“Mmm, I know, there’s been a slight change of plan.”

“What’s the weather like there in November?”

“We’re not going for the weather. But now that you mention it, quite nice actually.”

“Lesbos. Isn’t that where all those illegal immigrants have been arriving? Is that why you’re going?”

“Refugees, you mean. Well, yes. I thought it might be a good idea to help out a bit.”

“Aren’t you rather old to be wading into the water and pulling people out of boats? And what about your hip?”

It also combines vivid anecdotes that draw the reader into the lived reality of life on Lesvos with astute insights, often drawn from those experiences, that enrich our perspective on the whole situation.

A couple of examples will help to illustrate what I mean. For more, you really need to buy the book and read it. You won’t be disappointed.

Take this example, from page 41. It’s a simple description but conveys a wealth of meaning and emotion:

As I left the food tent at 23:15, I looked around, and in the dark I could see hundreds and hundreds of dark grey mounds, like a huge crop of large stones that had sprouted up in the evening. They were around all the tents and huts, including the toilets, and along both sides of the road. These were the grey blankets we handed out after sunset, and under each one was a person. They were also lying around the place where we parked the cars, which made it nerve-racking to back out, making sure there was no one behind us. In total, 2,200 people slept at Oxy that night. I was so thankful it was not raining.

Or this from the heart of the book (page 106):

After the terrible shipwreck of 28 October, when hundreds of people had ended up in the sea, flailing in their frequently useless life jackets, Kenny had been one of those who had leapt down to the harbour to help as lifeless or near-lifeless bodies of children were brought in. This young man, with his light-hearted banter and missing front teeth, had been one of the day’s many heroes, cradling and warming limp children, and performing CPR tirelessly for what seemed an impossible time in an attempt to revive one child whose body failed to respond as the father stood shrieking with torment beside them.

The cumulative effect of such experiences leads to deeper and deeper reflections as the narrative unfolds (page 135):

We engaged in banter about our early lives, and [my companion] said:

“Ah well, what doesn’t kill you makes you strong.”

And I wondered whether this was true of all the refugees who had passed through Oxy over the past months – thousands upon thousands of them. I also mused that Europe was being enriched by some of the strongest, kindest and most energetic people you’re likely to meet. How could I convey to people who had not been here my conviction that we needed the refugees as much as they need us?

A good question that is proving very hard to answer, but this book is an inspiring example of one way at least that this might be done.

The writer is well aware of all the veils and blocks that stand in the way of a more direct and compassionate response from us as we sit in the comfort of our homes and watch news of the suffering flicker on our screens. She also manages I think very successfully to convey the essence of our shared humanity with these victims of oppression, deprivation and terror (page 150):

It’s the distance, isn’t it? If you opened your front door and there was a homeless refugee family standing there in wet clothes, destitute and hungry, most people would drop their plans for the day and take them in. But our screens anaesthetize us. We don’t make the leap to think, “Wait, I could go there. It’s not impossible.” And we don’t make the leap to think, “What would I do if I had to leave my home to escape from being killed?”

I recalled the last Syrian man to whom I had said my routine phrase, “Welcome to Europe!” And to whom I had said, “if I were a refugee, you would help me too.”

“Yes,” he replied, “Of course. But I hope that this never happens to you.”

Can we really accept as right that someone suffering so much should be expressing more compassion for us than we are showing for him? I sincerely hope not, and I believe this book can play its part in making sure that does not happen.

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Refugees

Refugees from Syria pray on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean from Turkey in an inflatable dinghy. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images (for source see link)

In the middle of September the Guardian published a series of reflections from various authors on the issue of refugees. In the light of my current sequence of posts on the possibility of our repeating the Holocaust horrors of the Second World War, there was one, by Mohsin Hamid, that still resonates particularly powerfully for me. All the contributions are well worth reading though. For the full article see link.

For me, as a British and hence European citizen, and also as a human being, the most important question raised by the present crisis is not whether the people of the countries of Europe wish to accept more refugees. Rather, the most important question is whether the people of Europe wish their countries to become the sorts of societies that are capable of taking the steps that will be required to stop the flow of migration.

Simply hardening borders and watching refugees drown offshore or bleed to death on razor wire will not be enough. Europe will have to drastically reduce its attractiveness to refugees. Those who look like refugees will need to be terrorised. They will need to be systematically beaten, rounded up, expelled. Some will need to be killed. The avenues of advancement of those who are not native-born will need to be curtailed by law and by custom – a system of apartheid will need to be instituted. To be of apparent migrant origin in a European country will need to become a fate worse than living in a town or village overrun by bloodthirsty fanatics, by rapacious warlords and thugs.

In such a Europe, the essence of Hitler’s thousand-year Reich will not have been defeated; it will merely have suffered an interruption that lasted a few decades. Many people in Germany, perhaps, recognise this. It could explain the marked difference in the tenor and substance of their country’s response to refugees. They know where fortress Europe will and must lead, what a final solution to the issue of migrant arrivals would entail. . . . .

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