My feet were soaking wet with water from the bathroom floor, socks sticking uncomfortably to the soles of my feet. Me and another volunteer had removed our shoes to use the shared bathroom in cramped refugee housing on the Family Unit in Moria. The man there, who seemed to have some type of authority in the small space, said of course we could use their toilet, and kindly asked us to remove our shoes before entering their meager accommodations. But it was theirs. For now.
L and I had to ask this kind man from Syria to use his toilet because an angry man from another aid group (don’t kid yourselves; territorial pissing matches were quite common in Moria) told volunteers from the organization we were with that we could not use the toilets we had been using all week in another area of the camp. So there we were in the Family Unit asking the refugees for hospitality. Which was given without hesitation.
After doing what I needed to do, the man who allowed L and I to use the toilet (his name was Madjt) insisted we stay for tea. So, okay, why not? L and I sat on a cot with an itchy blanket and waited for our tea, prepared in used paper cups with plenty of sugar.
Madjt was clearly the leader of that group, if only because he spoke English, French, and Arabic, and perhaps other languages I am not aware of. He proceeded to share a bit of his journey from Aleppo to Greece. It was a story I had heard before and also hadn’t.
The war. The bombs. Death. His children. His wife. Left behind. Discrimination in Turkey. He knows someone in Montreal who is a doctor. It’s the same story and it’s not.
Honestly, Madjt was quite talkative, and hard to follow at times. So much emotion and desperation, and frustration. Frustration at the processes in the camp, the lack of services available, the fact that he couldn’t get a doctor to give him something for his eye infection, something more than instructions to eat better and drink more water. (See my post about the food quality in that camp while I was there.)
There was another young man, not even 20 years old, I’d guess, and he interrupted Madjt with a stream of Arabic. He looked right at L and I as the unfamiliar words poured out. Madjt paused his own story and listened, then translated for us. This young man was going to kill himself if his asylum claim was rejected. I had heard this before too, and it was more common than I can bear to think of some days. I looked at his anguished face, the shining unshed tears in his eyes, and I could barely hold myself together. I don’t remember what I said, if anything. If I said any words, I am sure they were utterly useless and empty coming from the white lady with a Canadian passport and the ability to cross borders as I choose. Without missing a beat, Madjt finished translating for him and then picked up his own storyline again.
As I concentrated on not just sobbing and screaming at the hopelessness of it all, Madjt said that he made his way to Greece because the West always claims they are about freedom and a good life. He waved his hand around the overcrowded quarters for emphasis, and stopped speaking, as if to say “this is freedom?” The chatty, no-nonsense attitude stopped here, and Madjt truly shared his anguish. “The West doesn’t care about us.” It was here that I saw a man realize he’s risked everything for a lie, the lie of the West’s smug proclamations of being amazing and great and free and equal. But in that moment I realized people are dying and suffering because they believe those claims. Something broke inside of me. It was an ugly cry, I’m sure. Madjt smiled as if to make a bit of fun of me. What does SHE have to cry about?
I have seen people realize that they have been duped. But not when the cost is so high and so deep. And on a grand scale, I am part of that.
It has been almost a year since I have met Madjt, and I have only been able to write about his story now (he gave me permission). It is too painful and condemning. It has caused me to deeply question my own origin story on a personal level and that of my own Western culture. A culture that loves to sell itself as welcoming and freedom and opportunity, but only when it serves our own interests. In other words, the freedom and welcome are not unconditional, and when you have nothing to offer in return, Western governments don’t care if you’re dying. I tried to stutter to Madjt this idea, that people all over the world care for Syria, for people like him, but governments don’t.
(I am now going to narrow down my references to “the West” as the US and Canada, because as smug as Canadians are, we are very similar to our American friends.)
I love hearing the stories of solidarity from Canada and the United States, welcoming people into their countries and communities from all walks of life. But I don’t see that as a function of a benevolent and kind nation state. That’s the bull shit I’m talking about. It is the people on the ground, loving their neighbours, dismantling oppression from inside and outside the system. But the movement is precarious, made even more fragile when it is tied to nationalistic rhetoric, like “America already IS great,” or “Canada’s strength is diversity!” I don’t disagree with these things on principle; I understand where they are coming from, but there is such a risk to being blind to our own histories and the oppression and hatred that is still driving some hateful movements and legacies.
Let’s start asking the right questions. Are we really celebrating Canada’s diversity as a strength when we continue to ignore First Nations’ voices? Maybe “We the people” actually meant only white guys were “the people.” Once we realize what the questions should be, instead of falsely elevating our painful, racist, colonial pasts, maybe we can actually start to close the gap between our stated ideals and our lived-out reality. Talk is cheap, friends. So is hate.
I don’t know what happened to Madjt.