Maybe no one imagined that the Middle East would come like this. Nobody dreamed of babies being born at borders or toddlers walking kilometers or tens of thousands of families sleeping in the open air. Who could have looked at that Hungarian barbed-wire fence and foreseen a heaving flow of people from Syria, from Iran, from Eritrea, from Turkey, from Afghanistan? Coming. Just coming. At its climax, more than 11,000 people in one day crossing the Serbian border into Hungary.
When I pause from the blankets and the tents and look toward that old, unused train track that has become the pathway of thousands, this is the question that runs through my mind: Who could have imagined?
Certainly, not I, but then I am no politician, nor a socio-economic expert, nor a crisis-care worker, nor an historian.
As we watch one of Europe’s most significant 21st century events play out before our eyes, it is good to remember that each person that crosses that track brings a story. They define a moment in history that tomorrow will be scripted and sinewed for history books, and policies made, and missiology reformatted. But today, in this moment, their raw courage, fear, exhaustion and cold feet offer us an authentic picture of the sheer human will to carve out a better life. Every one of them – every one of them – comes with anxious eyes and questions.
My answer to their questions is all to often, “I don’t know”. Maybe nobody knows.
What follows here are more questions … some of them from refugees, some of them from readers, most of them not entirely answerable. And the answers I do offer are not really answers at all – they are not the whole story or the apex of wisdom or even a fully formed perspective. At best, they are tiny pieces of a very complex human drama that is now being mapped across Europe.
Some of the Questions
- Are all of the refugees Muslim and are all of them from Syria?
No. While a large percent of the refugees are Syrian, there are also significant people groups from countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Eritrea, Turkey, and Iran. The vast majority are Muslim, but there there are a number of Kurdish Christian refugees as well.
The follow-up question is often birthed out of a fear of religious extremism. In essence, are all of the refugees radicalized? That is a little bit like believing that all Christians are ready to blow up abortion clinics.
I find myself chatting with two Syrian brothers outside the tent where they have come to find supplies for their family: dry clothes and blankets. Both are business men who had good jobs at home. They are fluent in English and we talk about our religious differences. A. says,
‘I want to respect the life of every person. The Koran teaches this. I don’t want to shoot anybody and I don’t want anybody to shoot me. I want peace. I want a life for my family.‘
And I believe him.
Does that mean that within the thousands streaming into Europe, there were no radical extremists? I do not know. However, maybe there is an even better question for us: How can we handle this situation in such a way that our actions do not birth extremism? Perhaps some of our future lies in how we handle this situation today?
2. Are they fleeing war or just coming to have a better life economically?
It is a tricky question. There are genuine wars and persecutions happening in these countries. Some of it perpetrated by rulers, some by extreme religious factions. Bombings. Check points. Streets and buildings turned to rubble. Murder. Rape. This is happening in the countries of their origin.
Sometimes we think of poverty in terms of finances only, but there are real issues of poverty that go beyond a deficit in the bank account. Poverty of Choice or Opportunity is just as devastating. Many children have not been to school in 3 – 4 years due to civil unrest. For many middle class families, having money, a home, or a car targets them for danger. Poverty of choice/opportunity means that circumstances beyond your control significantly limit or prevent completely your ability to provide adequately for yourself and/or your family.
Over the past two weeks of interviewing refugees, one of the most common comments made by Syrians, “I love my country. It is beautiful and I didn’t want to leave. If the war would stop, I would return home.”
We also know that there are refugees coming who are in search of an easier life – they are economic refugees as opposed to refugees fleeing war. One of the questions in my mind over these days … What would my reality have to look like in order to motivate me to take on the personal hardship and danger of boarding a boat run by smugglers, paying thousands of dollars for a ride, and walking for days with my children in tow? How would you answer that question?
3. Why are we being treated this way in Europe?
This question comes from the refugees themselves. The truth is, there is a divided Europe over the refugee question. It is complicated. What follows are two pieces of the puzzle – not the whole picture, just pieces.
Some of the division has to do with historical-religious perspectives and fears that have their root in the Ottoman Empire or The Turkish Yoke, as it is frequently called. Some division comes out of practical questions regarding effective and fair sharing of the very real resources necessary to integrate nearly 1 million refugees into an EU economy.
Many European Union countries who geographically belong to SouthEastern Europe remember a historical period in which the Ottomans effectively invaded and dominated Orthodox Christian and Catholic lands. It was bloody. brutal, terrifying and it was devastatingly extensive as Christians were forced to convert or die. The Bulgarians refer to it as the ‘500 year Turkish Yoke’ and they remember it as yesterday. So, a million people of Middle Eastern descent suddenly moving through their towns and villages creates understandable concern and unease.
These same countries also tend to be the most economically challenged in the European Union. Most of them were post WWII, Soviet Block countries that have struggled and scraped over the past 25 years for entry into the EU. There is an entire generation of Bulgarians, Romanians, Croatians, Slovakians, Slovenians, Hungarians, and Poles that have literally been lost. In other words, people who were in their 40’s and older when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 lost any future they might have once had. They were a sacrifice on the road to a better economy. It was an enormously painful period for Southeastern Europe. With the possible exception of Poland, nobody’s economy is solidly strong yet and the mandate by the EU to accept a quota of refugees creates a risk for these economies.
4. How did they get here and where are they going?
It is fascinating to hear their stories, which almost always converge into one path on the European map. Regardless of their origin, they eventually made it to Turkey where they bought passage on a boat. Many of them have paid more than $1,000 per person to make the 7 mile crossing to Greece. The boat journey is dangerous, with overcrowding and with ‘captains’ who are smugglers. Once in Greece, they make their way by bus, train, or taxi to Macedonia, then Serbia, and finally Hungary. Their destinations into western Europe are then varied, with most going to Germany and Denmark being a second choice. The journey ends up costing upwards of $2,000 per person from start to finish.
The trip takes anywhere from 15 days to 3 years, depending upon how they travel, their resources, and why they left. Some Syrian families have fled their country and spent years in camps in Turkey. The camps were rough, but at least they were shielded from war. When Germany offered assylum, they began to make their way westward.
5. Why does the West assume that we are poor?
‘Refugee’ carries a stereo-type that is rarely challenged in the West. The assumption is that impoverished people flee to a better economy. This mental image is reinforced by a media who captures that quintessential photo of a poor, hungry, dirty individual in need of hand-outs.
The possibility that doctors, journalists, engineers, interior designers, web designers, and lawyers would leave behind their home, their jobs, the precious pieces of past generations and walk towards the West … well it is unfathomable. A middle class, educated, economically viable Syria may not fit with the mental imagery uploaded to a western definition of ‘refugee’. So, with the stereo-type comes assumptions:
That this influx of Middle Eastern refugees are coming to Germany and Denmark because those countries provide the best social infrastructure for free housing and expenses.
That refugees are only wired for menial jobs.
That refugees are lazy.
The conversations that I have had challenge this stereo-type. I met a young Syrian man who is web designer. He is attempting to continue to run his internet business as he makes the journey to Denmark.
One of my strongest memories of this crisis took place outside of a tent in Keleti two weeks ago. Muhammad offered to buy me tea as I sat by his pregnant wife and sister. I immediately insisted that I would pay, because of course, Muhammad is a refugee. I imagine that I broke many Syrian rules of hospitality. Finally, he stopped me and said, ‘Teanna, we are not poor people. We are fleeing our home because of war. There is a difference.’ That cup of tea, that memory, that insight have shattered my stereo-types.
No. I never imagined that the Middle East would come like this. I never imagined that I would be in the midst of their Transit Zone. And I still cannot fathom the reality of what they fled nor can I predict the future they will find nor the future that they will choose to forge.
What I have learned is that there are questions – on both sides of that railway track. There are questions, and valid fears, and risks for everyone. But, I choose to imagine that this meshing of cultures could bring conversations and relationships that are transformational for all of us. As a Christ follower, that imagination is birthed in the belief that a Middle Eastern refugee named Jesus knows our fears, sees our hearts, and compels us forward into a kingdom that is coming today.
Do you remember that kingdom? It is the one where the lion lays down with the lamb. Ahh, yes – that kingdom. Somehow these days, I find myself imagining this kingdom vision on an unused railroad track on the border between Serbia and Hungary.