Wednesday, August 31, 2016


For the past eight months, my house has been under construction. What started off as a four month project has now taken more than double the time, with the end nowhere in sight. While we upgrade our more than a hundred year old Brooklyn home, the task keeps getting more exhaustive and expensive. Anyone who has renovated an old house can attest to the fact, that it is easier and faster to put up a new structure than to rebuild an old one. So for the past eight months my family of four have been living in cramped quarters on the second floor, while the guts are removed and replaced in the duplex below. We have been braving the noise and the dust and the loose floor boards, trying hard to be positive, with the promise that the end will have rewards that will blur the pain. But there is nothing more stressful than living in a temporary shelter. Everything is off kilter and every waking day is a challenge. It is to some extent like living as a refugee.

By no means is my current status comparable to some of the people who have had to leave their homes as a result of conflict or dire economic conditions. Over the last few years, the planet has been facing a refugee crisis on a scale not seen since the second world war. It has particularly exacerbated in the last five years as the conflict in Syria has engulfed the region. To put it in perspective, most people who manged to stay alive through the conflict have left Syria. Many are living in permanent camps in Jordan and Lebanon. More than a million refugees have arrived in Germany, in the last year alone. Mostly from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa. Germany has been the most gracious of nations to welcome the refugees, though not always with open arms. Even though Angela Merkel's policy of giving refuge has grown increasingly unpopular, she has held firm. The nation seems to be atoning for a refugee crisis it created a few decades ago. Angela Merkel deserves a Nobel peace prize for her unwavering support of those who have lost everything.

Refugees crossing the Mediterranean on over crowded boats from north Africa have become a common sight. The world has grown numb to images of women and children drowning while trying to make the crossing. Almost everyday there is a capsize, as people meet their watery end in an attempt to find a home and a future. To walk in a migrant's shoes is to walk alongside horror. Yet not many can empathize, as it is human nature to take care of one's own and not bother with that which is uncomfortable and alien. And politicians exploit this feeling to spread fear and a right wing agenda of exclusion and apathy.

In America, the current Republican candidate Donald Trump uses it to pander to those who think they are the original owners of this land. Muslims and Mexicans are branded as terrorists, criminals and illegal moochers. In Great Britain the fear of the immigrant was successfully used to remove itself from the European Union. In France, the ban on the Burkini, and incidents of Muslims being singled out and not served, are a direct response to a sense that Europe is being over run by migrants who are not compatible with their way of life or are there to end their way of life via subversive means.

The reality is, it is not only Europe or the west that is baring the brunt of a mass exodus. Many Afghans have lived most of their adult lives as refugees in Pakistan. They fled their native land when the Soviet army invaded their nation in 1979. Countless have grown up stateless in camps which have become permanent homes. Now the Pakistani government is asking three million Afghan refugees within its borders to vacate immediately. They are being uprooted and torn from their families and are being asked to return to Afghanistan. Knowing that their nation is far from finding peace and security,  many are turning west and taking on a deathly journey. Another humanitarian crisis is brewing in a part of the world, which has only seen chaos turn into catastrophe. This means the numbers of people wanting to arrive in Europe and the United States is only going to increase.

People around the globe have always been on the move. It is but human to look for a better future for yourself and your loved ones. Self preservation is at the core of the human spirit. It is this very fact that led to the establishment of the United States of America. It is a nation formed and built by refugees who we now call immigrants. Yet America is barely doing its part in the current climate.
This week United States admitted its 10,000th Syrian refugee, in a resettlement program announced by President Obama last fall. In 2015, just 2% of the 70,000 refugees admitted were from Syria. In 1979, having literally destroyed the nation of Vietnam, the US provided sanctuary to 111,000 Vietnamese, and added another 207,000 in 1980. Having partially created the crisis in Syria, 10,000 is a far cry from the million Germany has taken in.

In reality, every nation on this planet was built by refugees at some point in time. Humans moved around always looking for better climes and laid roots where they could harvest and form community. That is how civilizations got started and nations drew borders.

Now that we have drawn imaginary lines on our tiny planet, the tribal nature of humanity has come to the fore. With visas and passports, we decide who can live where and where one go or cannot. We have organized systems of governance that decide who gets certain benefits and who does not. Based on respective histories, some nations have established systems that are more altruistic than others. Other nations, have shut their doors completely even though people from their tribe needed their help. Many rich middle eastern nations have done very little to relieve the suffering of the Muslim refugees that are on the run. Other nations have simply ignored the crisis.

To leave a home, where you have found comfort in family and surrounding, is the most disruptive thing that can happen to a person. For some it pushes them to find a new home, work hard to make sure a situation like that never returns in their lives, to others it spells death. But these are the people who have the metal to make something of themselves and in the process improve the plight of others. These are the people who have built America and will build Germany and other places where ever they are let in. To make them the enemy and stigmatize them as criminals or alien is not in the interest of humanity or the growth of any nation.

While I go through my relatively benign discomfort of renovating my home which I built as an immigrant to this nation, I do not take the disparaging of refugees and migrants lightly. When people choose to ignore the fact that all humanity is essentially made up of migrants who are just passing through this planet, they loose sight of who they are. It is what it is.