We are born into a particular place to particular people, absorbing the world we find and then habituating to its rhythms and requirements. The routine of being cared for intimately in a state of comfort and stability is our natural desire and need; children cannot thrive without it.
That said, human beings grow to become curious, adventurous and mobile creatures, often, though not in every case, ranging far from our original habitats in voluntary pursuit of economic betterment and new experience.
There is an involuntary shadow side to our mobility, however. Sometimes, life confronts us with forced relocation when famine, political upheaval or war (those three are often related) give us little choice but to leave our nests and strike out, in desperate circumstances, for the great unknown.
When this involves great swaths of a population, it merits the biblical term “diaspora.” (Deuteronomy 28:25, from the ancient Greek “diasperein”—to “scatter across.”)
“Diaspora” is exactly what has been occurring in the long-running Syrian Civil War, and the images from that scattering are enough to break one’s heart.
Gazing at hundreds of photographs over the past weeks depicting the Syrian refugee crisis, I couldn’t help but notice that one of the multiple venues to which Syrian families were attempting to flee was Hungary, the country my own parents fled from at the end of World War II.
In 1945, Russians were moving into Hungary to claim their booty as the Allied powers negotiated the spheres of influence that would be divided up among the victors. My parents left in the waning days of the war to avoid the hard fist of Soviet domination coming their way, opting instead to become officially “displaced persons” in a ravaged Germany, which was controlled by the Americans.
Seven years of frequent relocations later (my older sister, brother and I were all born in different German cities), their emigration lottery number came up and we boarded the U.S.N.S. General Harry Taylor on a voyage across the Atlantic. I was an 8-month-old baby in my mother’s arms.
The photo above is deceiving in at least two ways. One is in the physical appearance of my mother and father, looking rather luxurious in stylish winter coats, with their children seemingly the product of prosperous and doting parents.
Second is the happy and self-assured countenance my parents are projecting, my mother radiant and my father dapper in doffing his hat, no doubt at the behest of the photographer for the Woodbridge, New Jersey newspaper where this shot appeared. The long caption noted that we were being welcomed and hosted in town by my father’s cousin.
What it didn’t say was that my parents had arrived on these shores without a penny. No, not even one penny to their name. And that the “cousin” was a distant one, whom my father had never met, and who had a one-bedroom apartment he shared with his wife.
And that our five-person family would be occupying their small living room, until such time as my father, who spoke no English and had no particular professional skills at age 33 (he had been a track star and reserve Army officer in his native land), could land some type of job.
And that our cousin wasn’t too happy about all the foregoing, but he acceded to it with somewhat grudging generosity (in the short-term, at least), for the sake of “family.”
It all turned out O.K. for our family, despite the rather foreboding prospects attending our immigration. My dad worked hard, landing two minimum wage jobs and working 16-hour days for a good spell before we could secure our own apartment.
Credit need also be given, though, to a generally hospitable environment at the time for refugees from the war, involving as it did the whole of Europe where so many Americans traced their own roots. And where refugees like us didn’t look too different than those who were opening their borders (and apartments) to us.
And now let us fast forward to the eruption of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 and the nearly six years since.
The photo above, by Reuters photographer Bernadett Szabo, shows Hungarian policemen accosting a Syrian family that had just entered Hungary from Serbia in August 2015. Like ours, this family also shows three children, though their countenance is quite a bit different than ours was.
Nor is the father doffing his hat for the camera.
This family had been fleeing a brutal Civil War in which the Syrian government had long since invited in the military might of the Russians and Iranians, among others, arrayed against an improbable coalition of homegrown rebels, Turks, Kurds, Saudi Arabians and opportunistic ISIS fighters. The whole rebel stew is supported only tepidly by the U.S., which is caught between various rocks and hard places of overlapping foes and friends.
The family had trekked across Serbia and crossed into Hungary with the hope of attaining asylum, but Hungary, beset by its own economic woes and the xenophobia espoused by far right parties that have been in ascendancy in recent years, had no welcome mat out, no friendly newspapers noting their arrival in town, no room in any inn.
The Eotvos Karoly Policy Institute in Budapest noted that of 18,000+ asylum applications in the first five months of 2016, only 76 people were given refugee status. Yet the desperate, exhausted and terrified Syrians continued coming, by the thousands.
It’s hard to know how much of the undoubtedly racing hearts of the refugees in the photo above can be attributed to the physical exertion of racing through a field, and how much to the sheer terror and fear of being caught, imprisoned, and worse. Signing on with and likely handing what there was of their life savings over to smugglers for obviously perilous border crossings through unfamiliar lands suggests a desperation few of us in the West have ever known.
But gazing at the almost nightly videos of bombed out cities and their bloodied or rubble-buried children, it is not difficult to imagine refugees despairing enough to proceed. The flight from their homeland and all of its previous familiars can be seen as a last grasping for hope, a star-crossed tumble toward some shred of light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
In the photo below, we see that hope apparently extinguished in a family that had lain down on railroad tracks near a camp in Bicske, Hungary, with the intent of committing suicide by having the next passing train run over them. One struggles to comprehend the sense of despair that had driven these parents to seek such a drastic fate.
Yet the police, too, deserve our considered reflection. What might have been going on in the minds of officers, following orders on jobs that required preventing desperate refugees from entering the country, and then preventing others from killing themselves?
Every diaspora, one must conclude, is its own improbable tale of the heroic and tragic, the appalling and incomprehensible.
We live in a troubled world. We are acutely aware of that fact in 2017, though it was even more true in 817 and 1217 and also 1917, when “the war to end all wars” was at its zenith of worldwide, senseless horror. My father was born a year later, at World War I’s end, only to come of age when the madness resumed a quarter-century later, engulfing Europe once again in a conflagration that shook the very foundations of humanity’s belief in itself.
Millions of refugees were displaced following World War II, and that is not even to count the 6 million or so of them who were Jews and whose displacement saw them land in death camps to meet their end. The luckier refugees fanned out to virtually every country in the world, received if not with warm-hearted welcome and parades, at least with a civilized and compassionate tolerance that took note of the suffering they had endured.
My parents were among those tip-toeing tenuously into a new country and culture, hopeful, frightened, acutely attuned to picking up cues on the mores of their new land. They were part of history’s seemingly endless diaspora, reflecting the dismal realities of humankind’s penchant for conflict even as it has revealed our countervailing qualities of mercy and brother/sisterhood.
Our world in 2017 could use quite a bit more of those latter qualities. The challenge to bring them forth is clear.
The urgent raw emotion seems to fit in this song from a group called “Rise Against”…
Check out this blog’s public page on Facebook for daily, 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied always by lovely photography.
Deep appreciation to the photographers!
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
All Syrian refugee photos courtesy of Freedom House, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: www.flickr.com/photos/syriafreedom
I am watching on Showtime a series called The Company, about the founding and early operations of the CIA. They did a whole episode on the 1956 Hungarian revolution. I know you and your parents had emigrated before but the history of the USSR and the brutality was stunning.
My daughter has gotten involved with one Syrian family, who was relocated to El Cajon, CA. Of the five children, one speaks some English (both parents do not), and they are essentially destitute. However, they are relieved to be here and seem determined to learn English, get employment, and assimilate. It is a real study in contrasts when looking at the life we have, and the life they are experiencing.
My father shared a few tales with me about the kind of terror he had heard the invading Soviet troops had been spreading at war’s end, some of which make ISIS look like Boy Scouts in comparison. It’s hard to imagine human beings even being able to think up such diabolical infliction of suffering, but it persists to this day in too much of the world. I suppose that was but one of the powerful impetuses for my dad’s departure, and explained, to a great extent, I think, the virulent anti-Soviet and anti-Communist sentiments that influenced so much of his thinking the rest of his life. And to look at Putin’s conniving and the takeover of Crimea, it doesn’t seem like all that much has changed.
Among the many things that give me hope, though, is your daughter, helping one Syrian family. One is a world of difference from none for that family, that much is certain. Good on her, and thanks for letting me know about it.
Andrew you article is poignant. It appears that there is a diaspora of many people is taking place around the world. At the moment I am especially aware of the Hispanic people being pushed into America due to economic and other third world issues existing in Mexico. Their plight is now heightened by the election of Trump, who began his campaign for president by denigrating Mexican as “rapists,” and “very bad people.” As the Trump administration begins building a “wall” these people, like so many around the world, are caught in a dilemma, if not a kill zone, which seems to too inhumane to imagine. I understand Russia’s brutal response to people of other lands trying to flee their countries. Putin, in my estimation, is a monster who intends to destroy those who aren’t willing to submit to the cruel rule of their local dictators who are in Putin’s pocket. What is so hard for me though, is how we could elect another monster, who seems to share Putin’s political agenda of repressing people by refusing them some relief for their suffering.
Ultimately, the cruelty of people like Putin, al-Assad, and now Trump, has turned the world into a place of violence and suffering for innocent people who are trying to survive. I’m not suggesting that we open our borders to anyone and everyone who wants to enter our country. But I believe that Obama was on the right path of working toward a reasonable plan of immigration, that would at least give desperate and displaced people a reasonable chance for immigration. It is beginning to look like Trump is going to slam the door shut on that option. It is difficult for me, as a man who has lived, worked, and given my time in this country for 71 years to accept the new direction that the Trump machine is now taking us.
Just an addendum to my previous comments. I have the same, and more, concerns for the Muslim community. If Trump takes discriminatory action against them the consequences will be horrible. Not only will they be further displaced in a world that seems to only offer them violence and no place to call home, at least for the moderate Muslims. But the Trump administration will create shame and unAmerican rejection of an honorable people who worship a God who, in my view, stands shoulder to shoulder with the Christian God. The result will be the end of neighborly cooperation between Muslims and our intelligence community. Of course Trump has already thrown them under the bus. One can only wonder what a world in which we trust only those who share our politics and Christianity will look like. My suspicion America will be a place of suspicion, neighbor rating out neighbor, and something like Nazi Germany. God, I hope I’m wrong.
I apologize for taking up so much space.
No reason to apologize, Robert! I always enjoy additional perspective and commentary, and there is no word or frequency limit in the Comments section! To your points: Seems democracy is under fire and going through a rough patch around the world, with more failed states and conflicts creating more refugees and displaced persons who are looking for some shred of safety and stability. This of course opens the door for all manner of demagoguery ala Trump and Le Pen, offering their easy solutions and scapegoats.
It’s very difficult to know how this will all play out—I’m through predicting anything with respect to Trump, so confounding has he been to all such efforts. I’m pretty certain of this, however: if he begins rounding up Mexicans, registering Muslims, etc., there will rise up intense and sustained resistance the likes of which this country hasn’t seen in a good long while . Civil disobedience, sanctuary cities, all that and more as civil libertarians and liberal churches—and even some evangelicals with heightened social sensibilities—give Trump an earful. I don’t think he would stand his ground against the blowback; it would threaten to tear the country apart.
Fasten your seatbelt, my friend!
Thanks Andrew, for the thoughtful reply. I think you’re probably right on most, all, of what you said. It’s hard for me to understand why democracy is in such trouble. Perhaps many people simply don’t want to have to compromise with majority rule (even though Hillary won the popular vote). I worry, that like pre Nazi Germany, people want the promises of rulers more than the responsibility of governing themselves. But such a shame that Americans in such great numbers would vote for a imbecilic and vulgar guy as Trump.
I spent some time earlier in the year doing some brushing up on Civil War history. The similarities I found between then and now were surprising. It appears that two elements were critically involved: one was the cultural element involving a long dependency on slavery as a way of life in the South, and a major industry sustaining the Southern agricultural economic system, and two, were the Evangelicals who following the first Great Awakening created the doctrine of “free-will,” which gave license for them to project onto Scripture the belief that God wanted slavery of the black Africans in order to save it from idolatry. These elements became a means of identity and self esteem, of which the South was deeply proud. I doubt they could imagine life without slavery and the sense of pseudo-superiority it gave them.
To me, this suggests that emotions and money were the big factors in the South choosing to go to war following Lincoln’s election to the presidency of the Union in 1861. It was the feeling of the initial seven slave states that Lincoln’s election was an insult to their belief that slavery was a God approved way of saving the slaves. The result was South Carolina’s unprovoked attack on Ft. Sumter in April of 1861. This crystallized the split between the Union and the Confederacy. People were willing to fight and die for their old comfortable proud Southern culture rather that see the greater good of remaining together as a nation.
Who knows, perhaps Trump’s election helped avoid another civil war. I have wondered what would have happened if John Breckenridge had won the presidency instead of Lincoln. Would there still be slavery today? I don’t think so. Rather, I think that there is a possibility that slavery might have gradually shifted to indentured servitude, or some kind of cast system which would keep people of color from becoming the equals of white people. This would represent a continuation of a strong Confederate belief that only white people were God’s chosen people destined to rule the world.
Much blood of American lives was sacrificed in order to maintain the national standard of equality for all people, regardless of ethnicity, color, or religion. Today human rights and equality of all citizens has actually expanded into the belief that all people are equal, including the LBGTQ community, which has been fought against by many of the Evangelical/Fundamentalists in Southern states. I agree with your thought about how the oppression of Muslims, Mexican-Americans, and all currently suffering the prejudice of the Trump Administration may spark a great reaction from American activists. But Trump, in my view, is a revelation that the old split between the Union and Confederacy never ended. Lincoln may have won the Civil War, but he could not win the hearts of the old South. My fear is that the division we are witnessing will continue on regardless of who wins the day. This does not bode well for the U.S.
The division in American democracy is not political. Rather, it is cultural, psychological, and about pride. This is not much different than the divisions we see throughout the rest of the world today.
PS. Thanks for letting me get this off my chest.