Tuesday, May 26, 2015

TOLSTOY’S MESSAGE: Refugees take up resources and change society. But they are humans. What must we do?

TOLSTOY’S MESSAGE: Refugees take up resources and change society. But they are humans. What must we do?

EVERYTHING that breathes, dies. But not everything that breathes, lives. For people who struggle under oppression and want, this is the undying truth. For people who watch without feeling, this is absolutely natural.

Refugees count themselves in the former lot. They were small, but now, they are nothing. They were crawling, but now, are trampled underfoot and battered to the root. For too many of them, life lies beyond a hard rock which is as impenetrable to hope, as the darkest night is unyielding to light.

Their song began a long time ago in the morning of life. And now, which is perhaps noontide in the affairs of man, it is still heard by all. From the conquest of Israel in 740BC to the cruelties of 1939-1945, from the darkened villages of Vietnam in the 1970s to the ancient cities of Iraq and Syria in 2015.

And to China, too. Recently, I chanced upon a sad story by Pearl S. Buck, on an old and weak refugee who staggers into a city with a grandson in a basket. The place is “full of ragged and starving refugees and nobody really knows how to cope with the problem. They have to live in great camps outside the city wall trying to find work and food. The situation is causing a lot of bitterness among the local inhabitants”.

Are we, the people who live in ‘better’ lands, also bitter? Do we wonder whether the refugees are really escaping from suffering in their homeland, or merely seeking fortunes elsewhere?

Are they rogues? Are we angry with their negligent rulers? Are we afraid of the consequence of their permanent presence in our midst? Are we to play the good Samaritan, or should we pay heed first and foremost to “geo-political and economic realities”?

These questions troubled me for a long time. Suspicion made battle with compassion. For while I have known migrants almost all my life, it is only in the past five years that I have developed more than an acquaintance with them. And it is only since December last year that I began a relationship with refugees. I am, then, perhaps faintly better than the average Malaysian in the knowledge of these people.

But for sure, and I think you shall agree, the refugees are more than the sum of words and pictures that portray them in newspapers such as this journal.

This I came to realise when I met with them in long and difficult conversations. It was not just “Hello”, or “How are you?”, or “So, what are you doing today?”, which are the perfunctory things that we do daily without meaning.

There was this family from a country west of us, and they told me their story in collected tones, but, always, their searching eyes betrayed them. In those looks, there were doubt, sadness and anger.

The six of them were living in a small place that a ‘friend’ kindly provided. It was sparsely furnished. The head of the family was a photographer back home. His wife was a caregiver, and also served in a place of worship.

The children were teenagers. One was autistic. He said they were forced to leave the country because of religious persecution, because of death threats. “We were not poor, we were not rich, but we had enough,” he said. “Now we have nothing. My children can’t go to school. “We did not want to leave our country. It was where we were born and grew up.

Our friends and everything that we love are there, but we had no choice.” And then, Ish, for that was what I called him, said: “We are not beggars. We do not want people to give us money, we want to earn it properly. We do not want to take people’s jobs. Who will help us here?” But I had to ask them: “Why didn’t you go to the authorities in your country?”

Ish said nothing but I remember he looked straight ahead, sweeping the wall and his family, seated across from us. No one uttered a word. I could only guess.

But an African migrant I met while in Europe recently, had in fact answered that question. “Brother, nobody cared for us (at home).I did not dream I would have to run from my country. We were desperate. We want to live, just like everyone else.”

Alas, for him. And Ish. Nobody, not even their land, wants them.

In this age of plenty, perhaps we — whether living comfortably in Myanmar, Somalia, England, America or Malaysia — have become like Tolstoy’s child. We see “children, barefooted, hungry, hunting for green apples that have fallen from the trees; and, so accustomed (are we) to the sight, that the children do not seem to (us) to be children such as (we are), but only part of… the familiar landscape”.

So it is, then, that not everyone who breathes, lives.

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