Refugees and immigrants : open your eyes !

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Source : National Geographic

By Blanca Benitez

The large numbers of refugees coming to Europe over these last years has made lots of us very concerned. Conferences about the topic, politicians trying to offer solutions and great deal of articles in the newspapers… All of this had us wondering what we could do to help the situation. But do we really know what is going on? What can we do to help improve the situation? Two real stories from people who have suffered war, poverty and racism may make people see immigration in a different way.

 For the past decade, many non-European countries have been involved in civil wars or complicated situations, mainly caused by political problems. Let us focus for a moment on Syria. Since 1970 Syria has been suffering from the dictatorship of the al-Assad family, which has made the country completely unsatisfied, and led to a civil war in 2011. Now, Bashar al-Assad is still the dictator, even though he does not control the whole country anymore. The Syrian territory is divided, and several factions fight among themselves and against the forces of the government; furthermore, the “Islamic State” (Al-Qaeda’ successor, as some see it) has been trying to extend its territory to Syria, taking advantage of the civil war which is taking place.

Afghanistan is another example of chaos making people run away. The country has been having problems for a long time, since during the Cold War, but the actual war started in September 2001 with the terrorist attacks in New York. The USA sent their forces to the country then, intending to end with the Taliban terrorists. Even though Osama bin Laden was found and killed back in 2011, the war is still going on, since the Taliban still control some parts of the country. This means that nowadays, Afghanistan is divided in two sections: most of it is controlled by the USA and NATO, who support the actual government, but there is a smaller one controlled by the Taliban. These two groups are constantly bombing each other’s areas, costing the lives of thousands of innocent civilians and causing many to emigrate. Countries like Pakistan or Iran, that had been hosting Afghan refugees, started pushing them out when their situations also became complicated.

 It is easy to see that this situation only leads to chaos and pain; which explains why over 4 million people have left the country in search of asylum in different countries of Asia (like Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan) and Europe (specially Greece, Western Europe and Scandinavia). The refugees come mainly from Syria, Afghanistan, Serbia and Iraq, and cross entire countries asking for shelter.


The hitch is that refugees are not really welcomed in many parts of Europe. Hungary declared that they are “Germany’s problem”, and has been building a wall and placing fences at its borders in order to stop the huge number of refugees using the country to get to the rest of Europe. Other countries, like Bulgaria, Poland, the Czech Republic or Slovakia, refused to offer shelter to “any refugee that was a Muslim”, arguing that “their countries were not ready to host Muslims, just because of the lack of mosques for example”

Germany is actually the European country hosting the most refugees. Angela Merkel said that a large part of the incoming people would become new citizens of the country, and was considering forcing other countries in the European Union to host the amount of refugees that corresponds them; she assures that “our continent is rich enough to manage and hold the situation”.

But the truth is that most of the host countries have expressed their displeasure about offering shelter to thousands of refugees, claiming that they did not have space, or money, or that they just could not offer the refugees a job and a place in their society. The fear of welcoming too many foreigners, and the fear of losing the real culture of a country, drives Europe to think twice before accepting refugees.

I am sure everyone has heard a great deal about the topic, and has read articles with this information or even more overwhelming data. That is why I wanted to find something else, I wanted to see what people like you and me, who do not rule any country and who can only be passive actors contemplating this thriller, think about the situation.

Not too long ago I met S in France: he was from Afghanistan. He immigrated to Europe several years ago and found a job at his uncle’s company, being able then to integrate in the country’s society.

I am very lucky”, he told me. “People can’t really imagine what that is like. Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine, a lot of places that we don’t even think about. Different stories, but in the end it’s all about one thing: war. Refugees coming to Europe, dying on the way here, being rejected at the borders, we all have heard of this before but no one has really lived it. You don’t have anything; sometimes you don’t even have yourself because you don’t know who you are anymore. War takes over everything.” When I asked him how he managed to reach Europe, he explained how his family was quite wealthy and managed to leave Afghanistan some time ago (before the worst part of the war came), finding shelter with their European family. “Luckily it was rather easy”. I could not help noticing how many times he said the word luck. “I kind of feel like a refugee, though. Even I’m not in those tents in Germany, or on the unemployed list of Sweden, my home and my life, my daily routine, have been taken from me. My habits and my friends, the beautiful view I had from the window in my room everyday. Some of my friends are dead, and I don’t even have news about some others. I actually feel identified with all those people in the news, it could really have been me! They are my people, and it makes me sad to see that people consider them to be inferior and that they look down on them.”

I asked S if he wanted to go back to Afghanistan once things get better: his answer took a bit of time but was certain. “I do. It is my country and I would fight to rebuild it as much as necessary. As everyone does, I love my country and I dream of a future there, with no war and no danger.” I dared to ask him if he didn’t think he had left his country to its own, instead of staying and fighting. He smiled with sarcasm. “I love my country, but I am not stupid. Every fighter there now risks dying at any moment with a bullet in his head. And no rebuilding will ever be possible like that. It is going to take a long time before things are better.”

He was not the only person from Afghanistan I talked to. A friend of mine who was born there, but also lives and studies in Europe now, explained to me the real causes of the problem and how important our decisions as European citizens are. “International politics have a lot to do with it. The USA (and Europe) are favouring the bombings –alright, to stop the Taliban, but killing thousands of people at the same time- and then closing their doors to those who want to escape from them.” I asked him the same thing I asked S, if he would come back once everything is solved. “That is going to take a long time, at least 10 years. But once the war is over, everyone would like to live at home with their families.”

Conversations with these men from Afghanistan gave me a lot to think about and now I see refugees from another perspective. S’s hard memories made me remember L, a friend of mine since I was a teenager back in Spain. L is now 32 years old, and when he was 26, with his family of eight starving in Senegal, he immigrated to Spain to look for a job that could feed his people. L’s story involves no bombs or civil war, but has something to do with A’s: the rejection of the refugee when in Europe and the struggle to save the life of the ones you love.

It is really shameful to see on the news how those people get the few things they have snatched from them, or how we just stare at their situation. What about the desire of globalization, is it only for rich countries?

Refugees are not tourists; they do not come here to make money with a nice car and a pair of credit cards: they come here to save their life and their families. Is it a reason to let them die and abandon them to their luck ? That is not generous or sympathetic… not even human. If a person just like you and me brings their family to Europe, crossing countries or the sea with only a few possessions, I bet they have a good reason to do so; ask yourself if you would be able to look them in the eye and tell them that they cannot stay. And then, is it even possible to expect them to say “okay, well we will just cross the world again and go back to the war, no problem”.

 I think prejudices play an important role in our societies, especially when associated to foreigners. Of course we are not the only villains of the drama; issues like the one happened in Cologne this winter confirm that there are bad people everywhere and from all races. However, it does not mean we can put a label on any ethnic group.

 I am neither a politician nor an economist, so it would be too daring from my part to propose a definitive solution for this large conflict. I cannot determinate if we should or should not intervene in a war, or which policies should be adopted. However, what I can do is try to open people’s eyes and erase the prejudices that we may have. And it is in our hands to change the world with a small action: we can vote for our leaders, we can decide who is going to rule our country and what their position on the international field is going to be. Immigrants and refugees are people like you and me that need our help, our tolerance and our sympathy, and achieving that would be a big step towards a happier world.

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