Skip to main content
The Only Thing They Ask is to Be Allowed to a New Land!
May 1, 2016

What a life as a refugee
We gave up all we had, to flee
All left behind
But I don't mind
At least I've saved my family 

What a life as a refugee.
My Son, my daughter, wife and me.
Safe at last
The worst is past
Soon we will in Europe be

What a life as a refugee
We try to cross the Turkish sea
We say goodbye
And sink and die
Just when we thought we were safe and free*

Tony Wagner’s powerful stanzas once more reminded me that literature best depicts the existential pains of our very human nature. Literature demonstrates an acute insight into political struggles and the uneasy coexistence between ethics and politics. 

Imagine a land that where corpses wash up on a distant shore. A land where hundreds of crowded train shelters are full of thousands of children. How many of them would survive? Even if they survive, will they still have any hope if their beloved family members are already dead?

These questions have always troubled humanity. Facing today’s crisis, we have a responsibility: to raise awareness about every single refugee. We must not forget that we could easily become refugees ourselves.  Without empathy and awareness of the pains of others, can we truly have a deeper understanding of what it means to be a refugee and raise both a singular and collective voice for them?

Remember the post-Hurricane Katrina media coverage? There were images of abandoned and impoverished crowds of people – most of them people of color. Were these photos that different from what is now happening in Syria or Afghanistan?  Don’t these images tell us that one day, unexpectedly, even in the US, our houses could collapse, dead people could fill our streets, and our cities could become refugee camps? The story of New Orleans reminds us that this is possible.   

“(Refugees) are of special humanitarian concern because they were compelled to abandon the only protections and solaces that can render the harsh vicissitudes of life endurable: the assistance (however minimal) of their own governments and the social supports of their customary communities,” Peter H. Schuck argues. They are the poorest and neediest among us.

Imagine your passport has been canceled unexpectedly and unlawfully by your own government while you are traveling or staying in another country on a temporary visa. What else can you do, but just to be a refugee, if your own government does not allow you to renew your passport?

Nazif Apak, a Turkish columnist, claimed that this is exactly what is happening to the people who the current Turkish government believes linked to the Gülen Movement, known as one of the most peaceful movements in the world, but being scapegoated for over two years to conceal the recent corruption scandals.

“A businessman whose family has been dealing with trade for three generations was faced with a bizarre incident a few months ago. This businessman went to the airport with his children to fly to Turkey, but the officials there told him that his passport had been registered as “lost.” He was shocked. “How could that be possible? I came to your country with this passport, and I want to go to that country,” he replied. “I see, but there is nothing I can do. You have filed a petition, indicating that your passport has been lost,” the official retorted politely.” he writes.  

Is that possible?

Yes it is and it is currently happening. 

Dislocation is not a new phenomenon. The world has witnessed drastic forced displacements and large-scale dislocations and deportations in the last century. The Armenians and the Jews were forced to leave their homelands during the turbulent times of the two World Wars.

The formalization of the term “refugee” on a global scale, however, emerged in 1950, right after World War II, when the victorious states needed to discuss and define the statues of the refugees left in the war’s disastrous wake.  According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a refugee is a person who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or, owing to such fear is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” 

In his remarkable memoir, Heading South, Looking North, Ariel Dorfman told his extraordinary life story as a refugee in the US after the 1973 coup in Chile, when Allende’s government came to power. Dorfman reveals significant and existential insights about the definition of “refugee.”

“Yes, that definition of refugee might fit me perfectly; but I did not fit snugly into its image, the self it suggested I was to become. It is true that my existence had been swept up in a historic catastrophe which differed only in degree from those that had uprooted and would continue to dislocate millions of others in this miserable century of ours; yes, but I had the means, no matter how slight, to rescue a certain control – or was it the illusion of control? – over my existence, over my self-image.”

The Syrian civil war is now in its fifth year. Almost 300,000 people are dead, half of which were civilians. The entire Syrian populace – 15 million people – has been directly affected by the war. Millions of people have crossed the country’s borders on foot, in the backs of trucks, or in the crowded shelters of trains. They have left everything behind in the pursuit of hope and a new beginning.  

Some have even tried crossing the Aegean Sea in small boats, hoping to reach the safety of Greece.  Many of them have not survived this journey. How can we forget, for example, the picture of the body of 3 year old Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach?

Europe has decided they do not want to deal with anymore refugees. As The New York Times correctly reported, “more than one million people have passed through Turkey en route to Europe since the beginning of last year. Most were coming from war-torn countries, and about half were Syrians. Under a new agreement, Europe is sending refugees back to Turkey if they enter Greece illegally. In exchange, the European Union offered Turkey 6 billion euros (about $6.8 billion) to help with the crisis.”

Professor David Phillips of Columbia University suggests that the deal is ethically, politically, and practically flawed. Moreover, it violates international law.

He writes, “’Refoulement’ (forcible return) is forbidden by international law. Persons who cross an international border have the right to protection. They cannot be returned against their will. Victims cannot be returned to a country from which they fled.”

Unfortunately, political leaders in both the West and the Islamic world have abandoned their ethical and philosophical values in favor of political expediency. Instead of viewing these refugees as human beings, they view them as a political problem. These humans are labeled refugees, mercenaries, guest workers, outcasts, and deportees. But we must not forget: above all else, they are fellow human beings. There is only one thing they desperately ask for: to be allowed to start a new life in a new land.  

Refugees, fleeing the war in Syria, are not a political problem to be solved. They are human beings who need help.