Over three days last weekend, many Americans took time away from the bustle of their daily lives to enjoy beautiful weather, a picnic, and a contemplation of wars past. For a holiday that remembers those who gave their lives to the death and destruction of war, Memorial Day is, in practice, often peaceful.
But over the course of the three days prior to this quiet weekend in the United States, 700 people drowned in the waters of Europe. Many were trying to escape the horrors of current wars; others risked their lives for more nuanced reasons: a desire to escape the authoritarianism, or corruption, or poverty, or even the erratic weather patterns that are undermining livelihoods around the world. And though people risk their lives on these perilous journeys of necessity, current asylum criteria denies them legal access to Europe.
Last week’s events bring estimates of migrant deaths in Europe this year to 2000. In just one day, last Thursday, 500 individuals died, even as 4000 were saved.
With warming temperatures and a safer route through Turkey blocked, these numbers are likely going to increase. That increase is challenging the current response from Europe, making clear that rescue operations are insufficient, the archaic laws defining refugee status are too narrow, and the challenges that humanitarian providers face in responding to the crisis are too vast. Additionally, the political challenges are great, with swaths of the European population anxious about the potential ramification of an influx of migrants, and political organizations of every stripe pushing for solutions, some durable and some short-term. The crisis requires a human-centered response, but such a response requires us to truly see and empathize with the people behind the numbers.
Yet how do we comprehend the people behind such astronomical numbers? How can we work to imagine what desperation drives people to attempt a journey that risks their lives and those of their children?
One way to humanize the numbers and bring individuals into relief is through emotionally jarring photography. The German humanitarian organization Sea-Watch made the drastic decision to publish a picture of a drowned baby in the hopes that this human image would serve as a call to action. (Picture included at the bottom, scrolling down is optional.)
But there is inherent danger that such an image will focus on a narrative of victimization, dehumanizing these migrants, denying their agency, and reducing their potential for positive contribution in their prospective host countries. The concept mirrors some of the problems of poverty porn, the use of extreme imagery of economic victimhood for political and financial gain. In response to images like these, European relief and development organizations have designed a code of conduct for messaging to respect human dignity.
More moving for me and, perhaps more respectful of these migrant people, was the response of an individual rescuer. He, himself a father, and a music therapist, described his own reaction:
"I began to sing to comfort myself and to give some kind of expression to this incomprehensible, heart-rending moment. Just six hours ago this child was alive.
For a moment, these words transported me to the anguish and powerlessness this man felt, and thus to the pain of the human tragedy.
The truth, however, is that even to attempt comprehension of this tragedy is deeply disturbing. Doing so inevitably moves us, bringing to life a mixture of emotions: sadness, fear, powerlessness, and perhaps guilt, to name just a few. It would distress us and so we avoid it.
Because who among us wants to feel more powerless, guiltier, more upset in our lives? Automatically, we turn away from the discomfort of any new human suffering; like ostriches, we face only the immediate problems of our daily lives, rarely acknowledging that our global society is facing immense challenges, which inevitably will affect us, too. Sometimes I wonder if we are wired to tackle only our own daily challenges at the expense of long-term challenges, or collective challenges.
But how can we work toward solutions if we fail to acknowledge the problem? In order to find the energy to act, we must break from our impulse to protect ourselves and instead nurture a collective understanding, a collective acknowledgment, and a sense of urgency driven by compassion for an inclusive humanity that embraces ‘the other,’ these people risking everything to arrive on safer shores.
Perhaps the beginning is to make room for naming the suffering, collectively. In the words of the poet Denise Levertov, naming sorrow is the first step to reconnect to the human soul:
To speak of sorrow
works upon it
moves it from its
crouched place barring
the way to and from the soul's hall
I don’t pretend to have all of the answers. But through this blog, I hope to create a space for contemplation, for questioning, and for fostering empathy for those affected by this current situation.
Caution- jarring picture. Scroll at your own emotional risk