Being a ‘refugee’

The media juice has recently been pumping out images of children washing ashore the Mediterranean coast, trying to reach a place where they were supposed to have a more liveable future. How cynical one may be of the hypocrisy major media outlets portray in their utilitarian approach to human suffering, it’s nevertheless difficult to remain untouched by these events. This made me wonder about living a life as a ‘refugee’ and what is often not pointed out in news outlets.

In general there seems to be a very shallow appreciation of what it means to be displaced, i.e. not to belong. You’ll hear certain politicians say that once people are in a country where they’re not in immediate life threatening situations that they should not try to move further from that country. In Syria’s case this implies that people fleeing the country who end up in Turkey, Lebanon, and other surrounding countries – which is the vast majority of the refugees – should not try to get to Europe – more correctly to the European Union.

This repulsive attitude lacks any empathy with what it implies to be estranged from everything you have come to consider normal and your own. The crises of quite suddenly ending up in a place whose landscape you have not learned to manoeuvre, whose language(s) you have not verbalised, whose implicit and explicit cultural codexes you have not embodied, is difficult to explain.

Refugee ‘culture’?

I was 4 years old when I ended up in Belgium after a detour via Turkey and my memories of former Yugoslavia and my birthplace Višegrad are blurry. It’s like my life only started once I arrived in Antwerp. When you’re young it’s not evident to process what goes on, and you get socialised into believing that you are different from what is considered normal in your new home. For me things got tricky around my 16th year when I started wondering things like ‘what if I never ended up in Belgium’, ‘what if I was among the unfortunate ones who never even got to experience what it is like to grow up’, ‘what if the war never happened’ …

This questioning can drive you into a dark place emotionally where you start to feel disconnected from your surroundings. Add on top of that, the experience that elements like your name, accent, religion, skin colour, gender, class positioning, et cetera become a constant reminder that you are not supposed to be in this strange land, and you start to get a broader picture of the devastating effects of displacement.

That’s why when I see pictures of lifeless children bodies I cannot but feel agony. It’s like an intuitive reaction that makes me want to burst in tears. Then I start walking through the streets and I see people smiling and the world makes no sense at all. At these moments I think of Theodore Adorno and his oft mentioned question what becomes of poetry after Auschwitz. Adjusting it a little bit I would ask: ‘what becomes of life after displacement, is it barbaric?’

Conextualizing Adorno’s saying in his essay ‘Cultural Criticism and Society,’ he was trying to ask – I think – how we can continue to produce aspect of the same culture that produced Auschwitz? Are we not denying the obvious and in a sense making criticism of that culture intangible? The question of what produces wars and thus displacement is not a straightforward one, and it is not my aim to try and answer that here, but Adorno’s criticism holds also to the scandalous refugee handling going on at this moment. Taking it to an essential point we could ask ourselves if we are not making it impossible to criticize and overcome the refugee ‘problem’ by producing the same culture that creates refugees? This ‘culture’ being the reification of the nation-state.

I shortly outlined a small fraction of my experience of being a refugee, but that experience was a totally different one for my parents who had to start anew after a partly lived life. Are these adults, who become in a sense children in their new homes, not suffering as much as children? Do they not deserve as much our empathy? I’m not saying this to put a scale on suffering but to point out the obvious, that the fracturing of lives is experienced differently depending on your age and several other factors.

While I conclude this short stream of thoughts I return to the image of the children I started with. I feel hopeless in that I can only put down these words as a form of respect for all the suffering going on right now. I feel numbed because I am that child, and so are you…