By Kiemia Rezagian
On one of our first days in Menton, my friend Mayson and I made our way down to the sea. We were excited by the clear blue water and bright colours that we had seen when researching photos of this fairy-tale, sea side town. We kicked off our sandals, and wobbled our way over the stony beach and into the water, immersing ourselves into our new home.
Mayson wondered, how many people did this patch of the Mediterranean connect us with? Who else had passed through this water? Who had leisurely waded, soaking in the sun through their skin? Who had giggled and cringed with the feeling of pebbles under their feet? Who had laid themselves to dry on the rocks? On all the shores of the Mediterranean… from the south of Spain, to France, to Italy… Croatia to Greece… Turkey to Syria… Libya, Algeria, Morocco…
Who had attached hope for their life to these waters? Who had found the means to pay for the journey to Libya, putting their faith on a raft tasked with maneuvering the route to a safer tomorrow? Whose tomorrow had arrived?
There we were, two of thousands connected by this sea, thinking about the weight this water carried as we treaded in place.
The water always brings me back to this thought – how connected we are. Pain felt on one shore will make its way to the next. Those of us leisurely wading can only ignore the ripples for so long, until we are faced with a wave.
I have faced the migrant crisis in a way I never would have in Ontario.
Menton has brought me sweet friendships, memories, and lessons I’m sure I will only recognise once I leave. But in this strange border town that doubles as a retirement destination and a British getaway, I have faced the migrant crisis in a way I never would have in Ontario. To the sound of the voices of politicians claiming refugees are #WelcomeToCanada, praising Canadian openness and diversity, I can quietly turn away from the news and carry on with my day-to-day (1). I am not writing to criticize particular political parties. I do not wish to say that politicians don’t have good intentions, but Turkey hosted nearly 3 million refugees in 2016. In 2016, approximately one in six people in Lebanon was a refugee. Meanwhile, the Americas hosted nearly 750 000 refugees collectively (2). Canada accounted for the resettlement of about 47 000 of these people (3). This is not to go unacknowledged. Still, the world’s poorest countries are hosting the greatest number of refugees (4). Words are not actions. Lives are in danger. This is not to be taken lightly.
Waves of people find themselves on the Riviera that markets itself as a paradise. Le soleil brille toujours sur la Côte d’Azur. People crowd to find space to sleep inside the doors of the train station in Ventimiglia. Black teenagers are harassed by the police officers patrolling the French-Italian boarder. These same officers chum along with their colleagues and smoke cigarettes without batting an eyelash when I pass by. #WelcomeToEurope.
I got to know some of these people a bit by volunteering with Kesha Niya, a group of people who live on a farm in the Alps and cook food to distribute to migrants. Most of the migrants I’ve met in Ventimiglia are Sudanese, Somali, or Eritrean, having made their way to Libya, and crossing over to Italy. The other volunteers from Sciences Po Menton’s Amnesty group and I arrived to the distribution point, and chatted with four Sudanese men while setting up. We fumbled through introductions, communicating in a combination of Arabic, French, English, and hand gestures. One man spoke about how he had studied I.T. in university. Another, in beautiful English, said that he came from a family of teachers and wished to be one as well. Most of them hoped to go on to the UK or Germany. Sharing that I was from Canada elicited a fantastic “wow.” As I wanted to muster any words I could in Arabic, they all wanted to do the same in English. We laughed, kicked around a football, had food, and went home.
From Afghanistan, to Pakistan, to Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Slovenia, to Italy, where we stood together. I thought of the legs of my trip. Ottawa, Nice, Menton, Ventimiglia.
During the weeks I went regularly, some faces and names became familiar. I remember meeting an Afghani man, feeling warmed to hear Farsi not just through the phone with my family. He met my anglicized Farsi halfway, and explained his journey. From Afghanistan, to Pakistan, to Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Slovenia, to Italy, where we stood together. I thought of the legs of my trip. Ottawa, Nice, Menton, Ventimiglia. Easy. He politely said, khoshal shodam, “happy to see you”, and we parted ways.
This account is not meant to romanticize the hardship of leaving home in dangerous, unsettling circumstances. It is, neither, to paint myself as having made any difference in distributing some food or providing momentary company. Too many times, I have stayed home when I felt it was too cold or inconvenient. Many of these migrants live in tents under a bridge near a grocery store parking lot. I chose to stay home because I could. Rather, I write this as an attempt at a more realistic account of what life on the French Riviera is like. Everyone’s experience is not sunshine and skinny-dipping.
We are not monsters for living the lives we were born into, but human pain is for all of us to feel.
I leave Menton thinking about my responsibility in this crisis. Why should I only see the sea as it glitters, and ignore the weight it carries? Why should I be exempt from the pain just because I have ended up on the right shore? When I ask myself these questions I’m reminded of a poem my parents didn’t let me forget when I was growing up. The poem by Saadi, a Persian poet of the medieval period, is called Bani Adam, The Children of Adam. He writes:
Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you have no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain (5).
We are not monsters for living the lives we were born into, but human pain is for all of us to feel. It’s easy to fall victim to convenience. It’s easy to filter our experiences. I am moved by my classmates who have taken in people who were stranded outside, or paid for people to travel where they needed to go. I leave thinking about what pain we can easily ignore, but rests just at our doorsteps. Back in Canada, indigenous communities continue to deal with systematic poverty, and problems with housing, water, sanitation, healthcare, and education (6). My hometown – Windsor, Ontario – had the largest percentage of children (24%) living in low income households in 2015 (7).
To feel empathy is not enough. First, I encourage people to learn about what organisations they can support financially. I have really appreciated the work Kesha Niya does for the migrants on the French-Italian border. Then, to volunteer time when it’s possible. Finally, make noise politically. Too often we feel apathetic and lose faith in politics, but unified voices cause change. We’ve seen them do so for better and for worse in recent years. Organize a community gathering. Start a demonstration. Contact your local representative, over, and over, and over. If enough of us cause ripples, maybe the wave will make its way to every shore. Maybe then we can all wade leisurely, and giggle feeling the pebbles under our feet.
(1) I cannot claim this is every Canadian experience. There have been waves of asylum seekers crossing the US-Canada border through Quebec and Manitoba.
(2) UNHCR (17 February 2017). Mid-Year Trends 2016. Retrieved from http://www.unhcr.org/statistics/unhcrstats/58aa8f247/mid-year-trends-june-2016.html
(3) UNHCR (24 April 2017). Canada’s 2016 Record High Level of Resettlement Praised by UNHCR. Retrieved from http://www.unhcr.org/news/press/2017/4/58fe15464/canadas-2016-record-high-level-resettlement-praised-unhcr.html
(4) Edmond, Charlotte (20 June 2017). 84% of Refugees Live in Developing Countries. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/06/eighty-four-percent-of-refugees-live-in-developing-countries/
(5) Translation by M. Aryanpour.
(6) Human Rights Watch. Canada Country Report 2017. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/canada
(7) Zhand, Xulelin (5 October 2017). Census in brief: Children living in low income households. Retrieved from http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/as-sa/98-200-x/2016012/98-200-x2016012-eng.cfm
To learn a bit about migration in Europe, I found this report a nice place to start: http://www.ecfr.eu/specials/mapping_migration