With yet another refugee crisis prominent in the news, I was reflecting on just how little the world's attitude to displaced persons has changed over the years. My Grandfather and Great Grandparents were themselves refugees a little more than a hundred years ago and it was with this in mind that I decided back in 1992 to find out first hand a little more about just what makes someone uproot themselves, and often their family too, in order to travel to foreign lands and an unknown future.
I managed to get a place on a United Nations Association project working at a refugee centre in a small town called Middelburg in the south of the Netherlands. This small European country has for a long time been a haven for those escaping trauma and persecution in their homeland and generally the Netherlands has proved to be a safe and tolerant place for displaced persons. However, as I was to discover, everything was not rosy in this particular compound, interestingly referred to in Europe as an asylum seekers centre, which, without the 'refugee' tag, perhaps sounds less threatening to western ears. It's true that in a reception centre like the one in Middelburg at least the refugees can enjoy a safe room and board. Indeed, in a strange twist, it was we volunteers in this case who were encamped outdoors in a field under canvas... and under guard.
This was a time of turmoil in the world – so what's new...? There were perhaps two hundred asylum seekers at the centre and more arriving every day. War had been raging in the Gulf and also in the Balkans as Yugoslavia disintegrated into furious battle. Refugees fleeing both conflicts arrived at our centre looking bewildered and tired. And it was clear to see in their eyes that they had witnessed unspeakable horrors.
Clutching a few belongings, some carrying babies or with a scared child in tow, they would stand together side by side with their former enemy. Bosnians alongside Serbs, Iraqis alongside Kurds, all registering at the reception desk at the centre.
These people, it struck me, were not at war with each other, these people were the casualties of wars puppeteered by dictators.
As the days went by we began to hear their stories. We were ostensibly there to try to get the refugees involved in some kind of social activities which frankly was never going to be the outcome of this project. It became ever more clear that these people just wanted someone to listen to their story and, through us, to tell the world about their plight.
And the stories were shocking. And most of all very very sad. They were the stories of lives and families torn apart, uprooted and destroyed.
We did our best to organise some activities that may at least temporarily distract the refugees from their traumas and this was a bizarre and slightly surreal task that might involve trying to encourage Kurdish freedom fighters to join in a session of Bingo... or attempting to cajole some Serbian villagers into playing a game of soccer. One of the Kurds took me aside and said to me “that is why we call this place Disneyland”, and indeed we were all inhabiting a strangely detached, fictionalized version of real life.
Don't get me wrong, the centre was doing excellent work within the limitations set for it by legislation. There were restrictions on the number of asylum seekers who could be granted resident status, there were financial restraints (the food provided was strictly rationed) and the processing time for applications was long.
What struck me, talking with and getting to know these refugees, was that each was a real person just like you and I with their own dreams, aspirations, hopes and fears. Most had left family in their home country, all were missing someone. Many were heart broken and on the verge of giving up. Some did. Suicide attempts were not uncommon here and I also witnessed madness, those who had just quite literally lost their minds. And who could blame them.
Yet amongst all the turmoil there remained over and above all else hope. Hope for a better life, hope for recovery. Hope for reconciliation.
The human spirit is never stronger than in a place like this where a glimpse of a better life lies just beyond the fence..
Slowly I got to know the stories of some of the most inspiring people I have ever met. Iraqi soldiers would open up to me, we'd drink whisky together and talk deep into the night. Kosovans would tell me that they loved to dance, that they miss the simple pleasures in their lives. Kurds would speak of their love for family and home. Strong grown men, trained as soldiers, would break down and weep.
Twenty five years later the world has not moved on. Lessons have not been learnt and probably never will be.
As the world finds itself in the midst of yet another refugee crisis, what hope have we that compassion and understanding will ever prevail?
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