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One refugee in a surging tide

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Families and children risk their lives to flee from terror and persecution in their home countries (Screenshot via YouTube)

Asylum seekers are human beings, but racism, prejudice and government policies prevent them from having the basic human rights we all revere, writes Frances Letters.

STALIN IS SAID to have once remarked:

‘A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic.’

If a million terrified people scrambling for their lives is a statistic, then one most certainly is a human being.

On a train in France one morning years ago I chanced upon... a human being. He was one of a crowd of desperate young people driven by poverty and terror to the far edges of life itself.  One of the frantic tide fleeing to escape the ever-rising rage, hunger, bombs, murder, fire and flood increasingly sweeping the world.

My young son, Francisco, and I were travelling from Barcelona to Rome. Our compartment and every other one in the carriage was packed to overflowing. Some of the passengers were Moroccans returning to work in Italian factories after the summer break; others, from North Africa or south of the Sahara, whispering nervously among themselves and clutching little bundles of possessions, were obviously there without visas. The fear in their darting eyes was plain for all to see.

Our box compartment was too crowded for sleeping, so squeezed together face-to-face, we passed the night swapping food, drinks and life stories, all in a cheery mixture of Italian, French, Spanish, Arabic, English and sign language. Every story but Francisco’s and mine was of conflict, poverty, savage hunger and the grim determination to grab any chance to make good. Not whinging or sentimental — just matter-of-fact. Even with flashes of cheerful black humour.

 As dawn broke, we thundered through the rich lands of the Riviera towards the Italian frontier. In the crowded corridor, I stood looking out the window next to a tall, thin young African in a Muslim cap and cheap but brand-new white shirt — clearly a careful investment of precious funds to create a respectable image. Between his feet was a small, battered cardboard suitcase.

It was painfully obvious that he had no visa for anywhere, since his whole body was trembling as he stared blindly through the glass. The very air around him shuddered with fear; inches away I could sense the vibration right down my arm. When I spoke to him, his head whirled around; his eyes were wide with terror in his gaunt young face. Not even the most intrusive camera could have captured that terror as my eyes did.

In bad, soothing French, I tried to calm him down. In bad, frightened French, he stammered his story. Cote d’Ivoire. Father dead. Mother dying. Little brothers and sisters hungry. No school, no work, no food, no hope. The decision to save his family was the only way he knew. A horror trek across the Sahara; a terror boat trip across the Mediterranean.

And now mortal fear of the border police up ahead. So distraught was he that to quieten him I had to put a motherly arm around his bony, quaking shoulders in the gleaming white shirt, assuring him again and again in my most soothing voice that it was all right, all right. He wouldn’t stand a chance if he trembled uncontrollably like that in front of the police at Ventimiglia. I’d seen border police in action before.

Just then, Francisco came pushing urgently through the crowd to summon me. I had to see this! The young people at the end of the carriage were getting ready to jump.

They already had the door open. Half a dozen of them, a huddle of boys and girls, silent, their faces frozen taut. They had nothing to lose but their lives.

They knew the landmarks to look out for. Others from home who’d already made the journey had instructed them. Immediately before the speeding train roared into the border tunnel they were to jump. Hurl themselves at the brown blur whipping past. With God’s mercy, they wouldn’t smash into the side of the mountain ahead, or the tunnel wall itself. Shatter a leg bone. Hit the embankment and ricochet back under the wheels of the train.

We watched, aghast. Swiftly, like a stream of parachutists spilling from a plane, one after another leapt out the gaping door. Then whoosh — blackness. We were in the tunnel.

I’d been right to fear the border guards at the end of the tunnel. No sooner had the train stopped than in they burst, all brute force and thrusting guns. They netted quite a haul of frightened humanity, the trembling young African in the white shirt among them.

On the platform, in full view of a gaping crowd, two uniformed guards bellowed incomprehensibly into his agonised face. Back, back, back he stumbled; on, on they strode. At every step, rhythmically they rammed their stiffened fingers into his thin chest. A huge German Shepherd leapt and strained at its leash, snarling as he cringed away. Its slashing teeth missed his body by a hairsbreadth.

The same drama was erupting all down the platform. Old WWII newsreels came shockingly to life. It was sickening to watch. Wide-eyed and silent, Francisco stood at the open door taking it all in.

That my young son should witness the depths human beings can sink to was unbearable. Ordinary courtesy could have settled the arrests in a few moments, upholding with decency both immigration law and human dignity. But instead, before our eyes, an ugly modern-world tableau unfolded: rich, pale-skinned, first-world “Christians”, arrogant and crude as they wallowed in their power. Brutally, they lorded it over poor, dark-skinned, third-world Muslims — desperate, terrified and completely at their mercy.

Why had I been too slow, too diffident, to slip the few dollars I’d got ready into that young man’s hand? Fear of seeming condescending, a patronising do-gooder! Lady Bountiful! He’d hardly have resented some tiny help.

The last we saw of him was a mental snapshot I still carry like a bruise: bright white shirt hunched over, thin body bent to pick up the pitiful swathe of belongings the guards had tipped out of his little suitcase. The waiting guards still bellowed; the dog still leapt and snarled. Then our train began to move on to Italy.

We’d witnessed a repulsive public humiliation. Doubtless, the UNHCR wouldn’t have classified all those frightened people as asylum-seekers fleeing persecution or war. But they were poor, hungry and desperate. Surely to famished eyes, almost any hopeful step is lawful! Weren’t they, like all of us, ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights... Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’?

Italy later redeemed itself spectacularly. As the huge wave of refugees from conflicts in the Middle East began to break over Europe, it was compassionate Italians and Greeks who rescued thousands of the half-drowned. But that old Ventimiglia train drama continues to play at many a border across the world.

The strange and sobering thing is that the myths and fairytales that underpin our whole culture are full of characters like that young man on the train. For thousands of years, we’ve sat wide-eyed around firesides listening to stories just like his. Tales of the hero – poor, often the youngest or weakest of the family, or the one considered the fool – who must go out into the world to seek his fortune against terrible odds. Somehow, he has to support a widowed mother or right some grievous wrong. On his journey, he must confront his life’s worst fears: giants, trolls, witches. Reptilian dragons of every kind.

He or she is the modern hero of millions of books, movies and TV dramas and deep down, symbolic of us all on our own life’s journey.

We know him so well! We've spent innumerable hours identifying with him, cheering him on, gasping with him in his trials and sorrows. But when we meet him in the flesh, we don’t recognise him. Worse still, we ourselves may well morph into trolls and witches hell-bent on thwarting him in his quest.

Many years ago in India, I had my Jyotisha chart read by an old astrologer who was plying his trade cross-legged under a tree. I was worried when he looked grave and shook his turbaned head.

“Ah, not good, not good,” he said mournfully. “Very much of time in foreign lands.”

It sounded great to me. The old man, however, assured me that from time immemorial such a planetary conjunction had been considered a sign of grievous misfortune. Foreign sojourn meant exile from all that was familiar and beloved. No sane person would voluntarily contemplate it.

Boatloads of asylum seekers always awaken raw old fears that lie just beneath the conscious level of the human psyche. Foreigners. Invasion. For Australians, the Yellow Peril. Our homes “swamped by Asians”. Them.

But we forget that for the vast majority of human beings, be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home. Exile has always been considered one of the cruellest of punishments. If people have a reasonable job, a modicum of health care and a half-decent school for the kids, only an outlandishly adventurous few would choose to settle anywhere else.

We humans are territorial animals, creatures of habit. We love the comforts of home, our favourite radio station, the local football team, our familiar shops and markets. Who hasn’t felt mildly put out when their regular table in the cafe is taken by some interloper? How many churchgoers willingly choose to sit in a different part of the church each week?

Even those who do freely decide to live abroad tend to be subtly anchored to the tastes, sights and sounds of home. I’ve practically turned myself inside out across half the world trying to reinvent Vegemite and pavlovas from unlikely local ingredients. Even on short holidays abroad, for the really vital human activities – eating, drinking, talking, sleeping, sex – most people gravitate to hotels, pubs and restaurants pretty much like those at home.

Thousands of thriving expatriate bars in tourist hang-outs around the world are the living proof. A bit of the more frivolous sort of flamenco is okay, of course, or an occasional plate of curry or moussaka. But not many people fancy really going native.

When it comes down to it, for good or ill we carry our birthplace with us all our lives — the smell of the grass we played in as toddlers, the sounds of our street, the texture of light on a winter morning. Like human beings everywhere, no matter how far or how wide I roam, I still call Australia – or India, or Vietnam, or Sudan – home. Wherever I may die, I know to what brown (or green, or sandy, or snow-covered) country my homing thoughts will fly.

So the idea that millions of people the world over are born eyeing our land greedily is plain wrong. The core of their hearts is their country, too. It is desperation that forces them to leave. Either they’re running from torture and death, or, in a grotesquely lopsided world economy, they see no other hope.

But surely that lopsidedness isn’t set in stone. Surely the mechanics of the world’s finances lie in human hands.

For that desperate young man in the white shirt and the others dragged off the train with him, that day must have hammered home one more burning lesson in resentment.

Wise people in positions of power never humiliate a rival or enemy. Lose face and most of us humans fling up a barbed defence, shutting off reason and logic. We brood on our wounded pride, grind our teeth and plot to lash out in revenge. Would Hitler have surged to power if, instead of blame and vicious humiliation, Germany had been treated with dignity and justice at Versailles? Not a chance!

Did this fury catch fire in any of those hauled off the train that morning? The luckier “legal” ones who watched, heart in mouth, from the safety of the carriages, must have burned with it, too. The thought must have occurred to everyone, with sudden, savage relief, that out there somewhere they had brothers in religion, fierce champions ready to avenge their dishonour. Who might –yes! – even have an eye open for angry recruits.

Similar small humiliating scenes are repeated across the world every day. Australians have cruelly indulged in them, too, though for years they were carefully hidden from sight in detention camps. Each little drama is all the current stupid, explosive ferment of the world zoomed down into an individual nutshell. Who can doubt that whole new angry crops of militants and sympathisers are bred daily as a result?

Justice, the world’s finances and the fate of us all really do lie in human hands.

Frances Letters is a writer, journalist, meditation teacher and activist.

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