Our Collective Failure

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Here I am in Athens, Greece, where I’ve spent the last two weeks volunteering at a refugee camp called Skaramagas. In practice, it’s a small town, wedged between a naval base, a container port, a highway and a gulf that eventually opens out onto the Aegean Sea. About 3000 people live here, in heated, shipping-container-like boxes known as caravans, about the size of a trailer, each one shared by two families (8-12 people). Most of them, as far as I can tell, are Syrian, Afghan and Kurdish families with children, who trekked over land from Afrin, Erbil or Kabul to Turkey before surviving the short but risky Aegean Sea crossing. There are also some Palestinians, as well as smaller numbers of Congolese, Angolans and Cameroonians who were able to save for flights to Turkey before attempting the crossing. Some, like an 18-year-old young woman from Syrian Kurdistan who I spoke to today, were literally fleeing to escape falling bombs. Others are fleeing political instability or had gotten “involved in politics” without intending to and had to make a run for it. There are some who are looking for financial stability or increased independence — “I just want to be a grown-up — to earn money but also to make my own choices and have control over where I go and what I do — and Africa doesn’t let you do that,” a guy my own age from a southern African country told me. I don’t know if any of these people will receive asylum. An external adjudicator, an overworked Greek judge listening to an interpreter over a spotty Skype connection, will decide if their suffering was “real,” if it meets the criteria for asylum and if it renders them deserving of international protection and of the legal freedom of movement we Western passport holders take for granted. The Greek asylum system is currently dealing with a massive backlog, so many of these people will be spending huge chunks of their lives in camp — Adnan (not his real name), a resident volunteer who works with us said in a meeting that a friend of his, a recent arrival, had received a summons for an appointment in 2027. People make a home here as best they can, acquiring and making space for houseplants, camp cats and dogs and even a songbird or two, and spending long hours colouring mandalas or making paper garlands in craft workshops like the ones our organization runs. Some entrepreneurial people have started barbershops, green markets, corner stores, bakeries which turn out a steady stream of fresh pitas for 50 cents, and full-fledged restaurants with falafel, shawarma, shisha and outdoor benches facing the sea. Camp residents tend to have a love-hate relationship with Skaramagas — on one hand, it’s a damn sight safer, cleaner and more accessible than the camps in the Greek islands, where fights, stabbings and self-harm are common and many families have to live outdoors in tents. On the other hand, not all of them have the possibility to go to school or find work, mostly for linguistic or paperwork reasons, and they’re stuck living in overcrowded trailers for years on end. When I asked Adnan how long he’d been stuck in Skaramagas, he gave me the time down to the last hour. If he knew when exactly he would be leaving Skaramagas, he would probably count down to the second.

My co-workers are a French project coordinator about my age, Adnan and his friends (young, multilingual refugees who help translate and serve as cultural mediators, among other things), my computer programmer flatmate (who is Slovak, not Czech, I stand corrected Martin!) and a rotating cast of Norwegians (the organization is headquartered in Oslo), Italians, Germans and Brits of various ages and backgrounds. One of the older Norwegians is a retired civil servant who composes music in his spare time. During a meeting, he played a song that he had co-written for the Norwegian national division of the Eurovision song contest. The song was in honour of Alan Kurdi.

You remember Alan Kurdi. He was the three-year-old Syrian boy with extended family in Canada, whose dead body washed up on a beach in Turkey in 2015. A photo of his body, curled up on the beach as if sleeping, went viral, sparking cries to “do something!” The outcry may have contributed to the Trudeau government’s decision to campaign on, and eventually fulfil, a promise to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees.

But other than that, beyond symbolic outrage, not much has been done. Thousands of people, including children, continue to die in the Mediterranean. Countries and organizations that could provide better support for these desperate people don’t — in fact, things are getting worse, as the Conservative government in the UK has voted down an amendment to the Brexit agreement allowing for easier repatriation of a few hundred kids with family in the UK who are stuck in Calais and on the Greek Islands. Greece, for its part, has made refugees ineligible for free health care — at the same time making kids unable to attend school because they can’t have the required vaccinations, and endangering public health by letting so many children wander around unvaccinated. Well done!

I could not find the lyrics to the Alan Kurdi song online, but they went something like this:

A September night in a boat too small

The stars were bright but the waves were tall 

He reached out but we did not care

He touched no hands cause we were not there…

This song snapped something in me. As communications specialists — journalists, photographers, press officers, bloggers and storytellers — we operate in the hope that our work will touch hearts and minds, and provide the shock needed to fix broken systems. Does it, though? This viral photo of a migrant father and daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande did nothing to change the Trump administration’s soulless policies. Four and a half years after the photo of Alan Kurdi, thousands of people, including children, are dying in the Mediterranean. At least eight children died when their boat capsized just last week.

In my mind,  there are only two possible reasons for this fatal indifference.

  1. We, as communications professionals, despite all the stories, all the photos, all the press releases, all the social media appeals and all the migrants and bereaved family members who gave us their time, failed to tell the story well enough. We failed to touch enough hearts and minds.
  2. Our work is irrelevant because most people, at least most people who are in a position to actually do something, truly don’t care.

Either one is soul-destroying.

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