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Ch. 2: The migrant crisis

Illustration: Kim Wiens

As I approach the end of my first month in France it has become increasingly difficult for me to go on without acknowledging what is now the headline of almost every newspaper in the country. “Europe is divided about the migrants” reads last week’s edition of La Croix newspaper—and so it is.

The recent migrant situation is the largest influx of refugees Europe has experienced since World War II.

However, until recently, much of the European Union (EU) refused to take in migrants at all. When images of Alan Kurdi—the 3-year-old Syrian child who drowned and washed up on the shores of Turkey—went viral, Europe slowly mobilized. Germany pledged to take in 800,000 refugees in 2015 alone, but a lack of a cohesive European solution has led to stagnancy.

Under pressure, French President Francois Hollande has pledged to take in 24,000 refugees over the next two years, but the question remains: should we be doing more? As it stands, French public opinion remains divided.

“I don’t feel we’re obliged to help per se” says Harrison Bouchaut, a Paris native. “Should we morally? Maybe. But I don’t think we’re obliged to.”

Meanwhile, recent Charlie Hebdo comics have expressed extreme hostility toward migrants, portraying disgusting images of drowning families at the bottom of the sea titled, “Mediterranean family reunion.”

In search of the migrant reality, I decided to visit a nearby Syrian refugee camp in Paris. Located just outside tourist hotspots, the camp was a stark contrast to what I’d grown accustomed to in my first month. In the middle of the road an entire community was set up. About 60 families, from children to the elderly, were centred around a camp lined with tents and laden with garbage.

I approached a boy and introduced myself in Arabic.

“She’s a reporter! She’s a reporter!” I was quickly surrounded by a group of boys excited to get their names down. Rami, Khalid, Mohammed, Walid, and the list goes on. While the conversation began light-heartedly, it quickly sobered up. The crowd of children began to thin, no longer as excited to discuss their plight.

I spoke with a man named Abeen Alnasan, who told me of his long and turbulent journey from Syria and how his family had sold everything they owned to make it here. All of the refugees had come from different countries by means of plane, train, boat, and foot. Many had stayed in Spain, Greece, and Morocco before unaccommodating circumstances in the camps forced them to leave.

When asked about the negative perception of the migrants as “free-loaders,” all he had was praise. “We fled from hunger, from war, from attack… we are only thankful that you’ve taken us in, especially the women and children,” he said.

Eager to adjust and contribute, the men I spoke to just wanted to get back to work. From security, to taxi driver, to store owner, they all enthusiastically filled me in on the jobs they held back home.

“When did you first flee your country?” I finally asked. “November 11, 2013,” Alnasan replied quickly, the date clearly branded in his mind. “I wish I had died in Syria.”

Alnasan refused to let me leave before tearing his meat pie in half and offering it to me in thanks. He shared his half with two others. It struck me in that moment the meaning of generosity. I spent my commute home in silence.

Xenophobia has played a large role in preventing the welcoming of refugees in Europe and at home in Canada. Fear of Islam, changes to the status quo, and higher crime rates have made decision-makers hesitate. Yet we can all stand to learn something from Alnasan’s generosity.

The world has dealt with a large-scale refugee crisis several times before. In one case during World War II, Canada turned away thousands of Jewish refugees, leaving them no option but to return to Europe where many were killed in concentration camps.

We are making history right now, and all I can hope is that we are remembered for the right reasons this time around.



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