A little while ago, a wrote about a former refugee who escaped war torn Rwanda to live in the UK. It was the least she deserved after the world sat back and twiddled their thumbs while genocide happened before their very eyes. Army of You and Me was deeply personal. I don't think I've been able to read it since publication. It just makes me cry.
In one of my many jobs, I used to work as a medical secretary for psychiatric doctors who assessed and treated asylum seekers (pre claim, individual escaping for fear of their lives) and refugees (individuals who's claim has been accepted by the government). I had people openly tell me that such people were lying. Making up whatever they could in order to stay in the country.
They didn't see what I did. They didn't hear the tales of brutality, rape, murder. How people had to leave their dead where they lay or risk suffering the same fate. That children were born out of terrible violence and yet they were protected. They didn't see pictures of the aftermath of the wars. Bullet holes in homes. Rubble where museums used to be. I read their medical reports, detailing injuries from irreparable internal damage from repeated sexual assaults to lost limbs. I've talked to people from Zimbabwe, from Kosovo, from Sri Lanka, from Pakistan, the Congo even as the scars are healing on their bodies.
I'm not going to address the inevitable "but what about..." I don't care. I don't want to hear it. Because that same person has never sat in an interview room at the Home Office watching a broken human being recall their rape by men who were "curing" them. Or explaining how a single simple decision saved them from murder, just for voicing political opinion. Detailing how they left everything they own in the world because they are the "wrong" religion, or they were born into the "wrong" tribe. Or how they were "caught out" loving someone from the same sex.
Imagine, for a moment, leaving your home. With the knowledge that you will never, ever see it again, because if you stay you will die. Absolutely, without any doubts, you will suffer and die. No job, no friends, no family, just the clothes on your back, a few personal possessions because you can hardly take anything else with you (you can't carry) and travelling in the back of trucks. On the underside of a plane. In a suitcase in hold. By the flimsiest of boats just to save your life. And when you get to safety, finally, safety! You're a liar. Why travel all the way to a western country where you have some connections to the home you've had to leave behind? Why go to a country where your home is judged on an impartial scale of "internal relocation". "Oh okay your city is being bombed to hell, but why don't you live up the mountains? No bombing is happening there." Where you are actually asked about your sexual experiences with people of your own gender to test whether you're really LGBT. Oh god, if you're transgender, get ready to wait years. No money. No access to jobs. Contrary to the Daily Mail's machinations, as an asylum seeker you don't get to swim in bathtubs of money. You get £36 per week. That's it. You won't necessarily stay where you entered. If you arrived in London, you may end up in the North of England in a small, grotty room in the middle of nowhere.
Once you've been given refugee status, you know you can't return to your country. If you're afraid to die, you're not going back there to find your family. Even if you are given permanent residence, you risk losing it if you return. The idea being if you're that scared you shouldn't want to. I know a woman who wanted to go home to bury her father. She couldn't.
What baffles me is the idea that asylum seekers and refugees have it easy. Not that their dealing with PTSD, the after effects of such a horrendous journey to safety, probably taking decades to feel anywhere near safe, but to forever have people question you. Do you think the Home Office forgets about you? Nah, they keep track of where you go forever. You're on their books now that's for life.
These people suffered in their own lands. And the place they call home casts them as liars, as thieves, as layabouts, as terrorists.
You've seen the photo of the dead Syrian boy face down on the beach in Turkey after a migrant boat capcized. Drowned. His name was Alan Kurdi. He was five. They were trying to reach Canada where his uncle lived. Alan's death happened on the family's third attempt to leave Syria as it was (and is) being bombed by almost every Western government and Russia too. My father and I watched Alan's father reject the offer of Canadian refuge. My father turned to me and said "Why doesn't he leave? Go to Canada?"
I'd seen that photograph too many times, I had become numb to it. "Go to Canada for what? What's there? His son is dead. That's why he tried to leave. Syria was a death trap for his child. Without his child what does he have to live for?"
My dad was desperately sad about it. A thoroughly decent man who would in his own words "be lost" without his kids.
When the will to survive abandons you in the drowned body of your child, what is there left for you in this world? At the very least you're home, rocks and dust though it is, at least there isn't the inevitable shaming and terrorising of people who want to live. You can die without judgement. Bleak, isn't it?
Desperation will do strange things to the brain that can never be understood or explained in a way that a Border officer will ever be able to take in and accept.
I've seen rejection letters telling people "you forgot about what was happening somewhere else in your country, your claim isn't genuine, please return to certain death at your own expense and understand we will bar you from returning here if we have to pay to make sure you leave."
I've also been lucky enough to witness those refugees integrate. Get married. Finish their education. Become even more charitable. Enjoy life as much as they can, in effervescent gratitude.
Empathy is a singular emotion. It won't kill you. It won't lead you to your death. It just allows you to understand a fragment of what these terrified, scarred physically and mentally, helpless people are experiencing. See beyond the four corners of your life. The world is a big place. It's also in pain. The one thing you can do to help, is to know more. More knowledge means less fear and less fear undeniably means less ignorance. Dark things are born in ignorance. Let knowledge be the light.
Let empathy and love be that light.