Life as a Refugee

I am going to talk about four things in this address: a refugee journey; a terrifying country; a terrifying sea crossing; and why we Irish and Europeans, supposedly people with Christian values, need to act to help these desperate people coming to our country in search of a new life.
          I am going to start with a not untypical refugee story. Zainab is from Iraq. She is a 34-year-old single mother with a twelve year old daughter and twin boys aged eleven. She now lives in a former council flat in a south London suburb. In Iraq in the aftermath of the second Gulf War she had lived a relatively comfortable life; she worked as a maths teacher and was married to Ahmed, a technician on a military base. In June 2014 ISIS fighters arrived on her doorstep, looking for her husband, who had befriended American soldiers on his base. They poisoned the family’s pet dog and left a note saying “We will slaughter you like we have slaughtered this dog.” On a second visit they smashed up the house, and looted family’s jewellery, mobile phones and cars. Zainab hurriedly packed a few belongings and took the children to stay with her parents on the other side of town. Ahmed had moved to live in supposed safety on the military base, but a few weeks later was kidnapped by a pro-government Shia militia group – she wouldn't hear from her husband for another 14 months. She thought she was safe at her parents’ house, but a week after her husband was kidnapped ISIS fighters arrived there too. They smashed up the house again, took her sister away and shot her elderly father dead.
          A businessman friend then suggested that her best chance of getting the children to safety was for him to pay some money he owed to Zainab’s family to a smuggler who would take her and the children to Europe. He took them to a town in Iraqi Kurdistan near the Turkish border and introduced her to smugglers who put them on a lorry which crossed Turkey – a journey of over 1,600 kilometres - to the city of Izmir in the south-west, one of the main jumping-off points for the thousands of mainly Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees trying to reach Europe. Zainab approached strangers in the street looking for a boat to the Greek islands. They joined a Syrian group and were brought by a smuggler at night to a beach outside the city, where they were told to board an inflatable dinghy. “My children and I climbed on the dinghy, crying. My children didn't know what was happening. They used to associate the sea and the beach with happiness. They didn't know this dinghy could lead to death.”
          In the event, the boat started to take on water midway through the journey and the captain made all the passengers throw their bags overboard. Zainab lost all her family's clothes, except what they stood up in. But they made it to Greece. They were picked up by police and allowed to continue to Athens by ferry. She had been given the number of a smuggler in Athens by her Iraqi businessman friend. On this man's advice she insisted that she wanted to go to Britain, as the safest country in Europe with the best human rights record.
          Along with other refugees from Iraq and Syria they were then taken by yacht to Italy. They were then hidden in the back of a lorry and taken on a circuitous route – changing lorries in Austria – to France. In Paris they switched to a car which took them to Calais. Zainab had started out with 30,000 dollars – the money her friend owed her family – but little of that was left (Greece to France alone had cost 11,000 dollars). Here they were taken to a dirty tent hidden in undergrowth beside a motorway, part of a makeshift camp largely populated by refugees from Sudan. “The children had never seen anything like it and they were crying the whole time. They were saying: 'Didn't you say we would make it to France. Where are our bedrooms? Where is our house?”
          After a week, and after hearing that the smuggler who she believed would take them across the English Channel had been stabbed in a fight and disappeared, she moved to another camp run by Kurdish smugglers, using her language skills to pretend to be a Kurd. It was a camp with around a hundred inhabitants, all men, overseen by a dozen armed smugglers, strewn with rubbish and smelling of sweat, unwashed bodies and urine. After a month in this camp, in desperation she gave her last 2,000 dollars to a smuggler who said he needed it to buy a car for their journey to England. A few more weeks went by and nothing happened. The smuggler then told her he was not returning her money, and challenged her with a sneer to report him to the authorities.
          Finally, four months after arriving in Calais, and nearly six months after leaving Iraq, their luck appeared to change. A smuggler took pity on her and got her and the children with other refugees into a refrigerated lorry carrying vegetables bound for Dover. However the refrigeration was turned off, and the lorry stayed parked in a car park beside Calais port. After three or four hours the oxygen started to run out and people started to suffocate. Children in the group were crying and screaming. The driver shouted from outside that he wouldn't open the door and didn't care about what was happening inside. In the end somebody managed to phone the French police and they came and released the group.
          They walked an hour and a half back to the tents. Zainab told her children that they would have to try again in another lorry. The children were very quiet, saying only 'OK, Mama.' Three days later the helpful smuggler put them on another vegetable lorry in Calais port. They waited for 16 hours for the lorry to move. This time they made it safely across the Channel. They knew they were in England, but once again the refrigeration was turned off and the group in the lorry, including many children, were in danger of suffocation. Finally, the driver called the police and the doors were opened. And their terrible journey had ended.
          I'm now going to turn briefly to a terrifying and almost unknown country from which tens of thousands of people try to get to Europe every year: Eritrea in north-east Africa. Eritrea is a totalitarian state, which has been ruled by one dictator, Isaias Afwerki, since it broke away from Ethiopia, which ruled the country until the 1990s. The threat of a return to war with Ethiopia has allowed Afwerki to impose compulsory and indefinite military service on all young people – effectively treating them as modern-day serfs for the duration of their lives. Torture and indefinite imprisonment await those who rebel.
          The former president of the country's only university (now disbanded), Welde Giorgis, says the average Eritrean is now “a helpless victim. That's why you see these large numbers of Eritreans leaving the country at great risk to their lives. Many die from dehydration crossing the Sahara desert at the mercy of smugglers. Many have drowned in the Mediterranean. Many have become victims to organ harvesters in Egypt. But nobody cares. Eritrea has become an earthly hell, an earthly inferno for its people – and that's why they are taking such huge risks to their personal lives to escape this situation. It has become unlivable.” When I worked briefly as a volunteer in the 'jungle' refugee camp in Calais in 2016, one of the largest groups in the camp was of young Eritrean men. They were extraordinarily tough young men, real survivors – climbing into the dangerously exposed undercarriage of a lorry heading for England held no fear for them after all the terrors they had been through.
          What many of them had gone through included a horrific crossing of the Mediterranean sea from Libya to Italy. For my reading this morning, I was originally going to read the appalling story of a very ordinary Italian leisure sailor who came across hundreds of African refugees drowning in the sea after their overloaded and unseaworthy smugglers' boat sank. But because there would be children in the congregation today, I was afraid it would give them nightmares. If you read one book after this service, read this small book, The Optician of Lampedusa (Lampedusa is an Italian island in the Mediterranean and the book is only a little over 100 pages long). This is the plight of the 21st century refugee at its most tragic and heart-rending.
          Another book I read while preparing this address was an extraordinary account by Guardian journalist Patrick Kingsley, who followed a Syrian man, Hashem al-Souki, for much of his 2015 refugee journey from Egypt to Sweden. In Serbia he came across a priest who was acting as a one-man humanitarian relief operation for hundreds of Syrian, Afghan and other refugees hiding out in a disused brick factory on the outskirts of a town near the Hungarian border. In every terrible human situation, there are always saints, and Father Tibor Varga is one of these. “I'm totally convinced that when you help the needy, you're helping God with something. If you ask a bank for a loan, you have to pay it back. And if you give a loan to God, he will pay you back with much more interest,” he told Kingsley.
          He bemoaned Europe’s mean-minded response to the Syrian refugee crisis – in 2015 the EU agreed collectively to take 120,000 refugees from that war (although some states like Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic opposed and later opted out even of this limited gesture), at a time when 9,000 refugees were arriving in Greece alone every day. Germany later accepted nearly a million Syrian refugees on its own. Tibor Varga said rightly that the EU was (and still is) frightened that a big influx of refugees would erode its European values. “But what values will there be to uphold if we abandon our duty to protect those less fortunate than ourselves?” he asked. “If Europe is not able to show a better way of life to them, a more moral way of life to them, then they will think that their morality is better than ours. They need to see some higher standards of morality on this so-called Christian continent, based on solidarity and generosity, kindness and justice and love. If not, they will set up their own.”

Andy Pollak
Dublin Unitarian Church                                        13 February 2022