When does the real Europe begin?
I was asked this by a Syrian refugee who slept on the muddy ground at the border between Croatia and Serbia. It was October 2015, a few weeks after the photograph of Alan Kurdi, the dead boy on a Turkish beach after the capsizing of a migrant boat, had gone around the world. It was the time of the #welcomerefugees hashtag, the awakening of a part of public opinion. It seemed as though many people were opening their eyes and they were outraged and demanding accountability. That year a million people crossed the sea to reach Europe. The route to Northern Europe through Turkey, Greece and the Balkans became an obstacle course riddled with humiliation for refugees. Overcrowded trains, tear gas, taxi drivers who cheated them, temporary border closures, detention centres.

When does the real Europe begin?
Syrian, Afghan, Iraqi and Pakistani families shivered in the cold. There were no tents because Serbia didn’t want them to stay but to be on the move as soon as possible, but the flow to the north was being rerouted and Croatia decided to close its borders for the time being. Under the rain sat elderly people in wheelchairs, children sheltered under huge blue waterproofs, there were cries of desperation. 

When does the real Europe begin?
The European Union flag rippled on the other side of the border, in Croatia. But the Syrian refugee's question was not obviously geographical. The question he was asking me was when, at what latitude, at which kilometre, would his human rights be respected. Europe as a dream, Europe as a refuge of humanism and of humanity, Europe as the idyllic image that many in the Middle East and Africa may have in their mind’s eye; the Europe which in recent years has been fading before our eyes. 

When does the real Europe begin?
The rain went on, rubbish everywhere mixing with the mud. A woman from Afghanistan took my arm. I didn’t understand what she was saying as I don’t speak Dari or Pashto, but in the end we started to talk in Urdu, the official language of the neighbouring country, Pakistan. She had four children clinging to her, soaked to the skin. “Help me cross the border”, she said. She clung to my hand, crying and begging. “You can do it,” she said. “Don’t leave me here.” 

When does the real Europe begin?
The next day, Croatia opened the border and the three thousand people crowded together crossed in a flash; their departure coinciding with a break in the rain. The Afghan woman and her children also went through. I remember a multi-coloured stuffed toy that had been discarded in the mud, its paws in the air; a witness to the days of suffering that were forever in the past. I stayed looking at it awhile, as if it had some symbolic power, as if it could tell me something about what was happening there. 

When does the real Europe begin?
On that trip I also met Adham, a young man who escaped from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus. His grandfather had fled Palestine after partition in 1948 and sought refuge in Syria. So he was a refugee twice over. “I’m a maths teacher. The Syrian army killed my brother and my father. Islamic State is in Yarmouk too. Life is impossible there. I decided to flee with my partner.” He paid 1,000 dollars to the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda to get through border controls; he paid to flee his own country. In Turkey he paid another 1,000 to get into an inflatable dinghy bound for the Greek island of Lesbos. I went with him for much of the way; the ferry to Athens, the bus to the border between Greece and Macedonia.
He wanted to reach Germany. And he did. He managed to navigate the entire obstacle course put in place by the European nations to finally arrive at his destination. Shortly after settling in Germany, after the Paris attacks of November 2015, Adham wrote me a message: “People look at me with hate. They've yelled that I should go back to Syria. I’m running away from the crimes of the Syrian regime and Islamic terrorism. They don’t understand.” 

When does the real Europe begin?
At that moment, Adham must have asked the same question. But Adham didn't give up. He moved to East Berlin. He had a child with his partner, just as they planned. The last time I spoke to him, he told me he loves Catalonia and that he would like us to meet again. 

When does the real Europe begin?
Since October 2015 the question from that Syrian man on the route of shame echoes in my head from time to time and I search for an answer. I think about all the refugees I've known—some are dead, others are in camps, others in European cities—and I wonder if there is an answer. Or, at least, as there are many possible answers, I wonder if any one of them, or a mixture, is more or less valid. 

What should my answer have been?
This, perhaps. If you mean the Europe of borders, Fortress Europe, the Europe of xenophobic marches and racist attacks, the Europe that looks the other way whilst all humanity drowns in the Mediterranean, the Europe that refuses boatloads of rescued migrants, the Europe that pays the Libyan coastguard to stop departures, the Europe that doesn't care if people are humiliated as long as it manages to seal itself tight, I would have to tell you not to go on, that this is the real Europe. 

Or perhaps this. If you mean the Europe of human rights, the Europe that wants to welcome you, the Europe that stands together with those fleeing war, my answer would be that this Europe is still under construction. 

When does the real Europe begin?
The 21st century has three major issues: feminism, climate change and the movement of people. In this last area, both the president of the USA, Donald Trump, and the official and unofficial sectors that have embraced populist nationalism are creating a new enemy: the refugee population. Those who were previously immigrants, who were undocumented migrants, who were terrorists; the label changes and the other is always identified and demonised. Some will say that this is nothing new in the story of the human race, but in the last few years we have entered a new symbolic dimension. Parties in power such as Matteo Salvini’s Liga Norte represent the maximum expression of a Europe that in many ways has turned into a negative project; that defines itself in contrast to others, that is against everything, but that does not know what it is for. Small unorganised cores of people, always people, are fighting to create ways forward—as yet unknown—to unearth and regain what we used to call values. What values? Those that have been mocked, scorned, and reviled. Solidarity and empathy have fallen out of fashion and are spoken with hesitation, with the fear of being called naive or a do-gooder. It’s true that egoistic compassion poses another risk of dehumanisation because it reduces migrants and those fleeing to victims. Refugees are a gaping wound, not a person; they are to be pitied. But cynicism and indifference—both direct or indirect forms of violence—are gaining ground. By a long way.

When does the real Europe begin?
Three years have passed now, but I don't know what to tell him. 

 

Agus Morales (Barcelona, Spain, 1975). Writer and director of Revista 5W. He is a contributor to The New York Times en Español. He is the author of No somos refugiados (Círculo de Tiza publication), a book that was recommended internationally in the 2017 Gabo Festival. He was a correspondent for the EFE Agency in India and Pakistan (2007-2012). He worked for Doctors Without Borders in Africa and the Middle East. 

Autor: 
Agus Morales