Meeting refugees in Kos

Stateless people

This is a guest blog written by C L Bell (@writerclb) a South African-British journalist-writer-researcher based in Glasgow, Scotland. 

In August I flew to Kos to bear witness to the refugee situation. After three years of watching my husband disintegrate physically and psychologically as he battled two kinds of cancer, I understand what it is to suffer and to feel like you have no energy left for anything else, and so I went to Kos to ask myself this: how do we care, when we think we cannot? My piece, No Man Is an Island, ran in The Independent.

My piece is one of many published during a month in which the tone has begun to shift from “marauding Muslim migrants” to “poor people”. The tipping point came when the image of the drowned 3-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, went viral on social media. This was the moment when the world collectively said “enough” – and David Cameron’s government began to realise it was out of step with a shifting public sentiment.

And yet, already this galvanisation of the public behind this single photograph is being doubted and damned by critics. Writing in Vox, Max Fisher argues that it was “voyeurism”, not a growing compassion that propelled this image around the internet, billing this moment as social media at its “most hollow and hypocritical”. We click, we share, and then we carry with the rest of our privileged lives.

Phew. Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.

Transformation is the hardest journey for any human to make. I grew in apartheid South Africa. I had to unlearn that my racially segregated society was not normal. I had to unlearn that the deep fear I had of the black stranger – that was instilled in me by my childhood society – was just another ghost story.

The road out of your dark heart is long, winding, and badly lit, but when we start on that journey, we need the support of others. We need compassion and encouragement, not their scorn, doubts and jeers.

In Kos I met Hiba Ezzideen, a 29-year-old Syrian from Idlib who was planning to walk to Holland. Her own Santiago Compostela to a new life. Hiba told me “I think wars are good, because they remind you to search for the immortal things to believe in. And for me, that is humanity.”

Let’s rather applaud the collective humanity of sharing that picture and how our clicks have put pressure on our governments. Cynicism is the last thing we need right now.

CL Bell’s book Lost Where I Belong, in which she faces up to fear, ignorance and prejudice in post-apartheid South Africa will be published next year.  You can read early chapters here.

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