His Name Is Muhammad

In my 2013 Christmas letter, I wrote about refugees. Despite my expressed wish, then, for Peace on Earth, I don’t think things have improved.

Refugees Fleeing Violence in Syria Confront Dire Conditions in Bulgaria. Escaping war and running for their lives, Syrians are overwhelming the poorest country in the European Union. Bulgaria is all the way across the breadth of Turkey from Syria, a thousand miles! Are they desperate? Well, yes. That’s war, don’t you know? Damn them there, damn them here. War is hell…”

Since that time I’ve heard little about Bulgaria’s problem, except that the inevitable strains and stresses have spread and flared within the country, with predictably unpleasant consequences. In the meantime, the numbers of people running for their lives have increased rapidly. If they’re running for their lives figuratively, we call them migrants. If literally, refugees.

Poland, Hungary, Croatia, Italy, Greece and other countries along the spongy old borderlines on the east of the West are straining and breaking with the flow streaming toward the hoped-for safety of the West, now idealized in Germany, Austria, and some of the Nordic countries. On their way the migrants endure privation and deception, robbery and rape, starvation and drowning, tear gas and fire hoses, new border blockades and razor wire, and often deal tragically with black-hearted smugglers. Some find pockets of kind-hearted people who provide food and shelter along the way — both officially organized and personally driven — but these are by no means pervasive and the hardy few who do offer help can only do so much.

As you might expect, feelings are sharply divided, with some citizens violently opposed and others wanting to stretch toward humanitarian ideals. That is surely a European thing and would never happen here in the U.S.A. of course. As for Bulgaria, Prime Minister Borisov has requested that the EU establish a “hot spot” in the country on a par with Greece and Italy to organize and help pay for the temporary accommodation of refugees. 1 The ensuing political firestorm is comparable to what we might expect if a U.S. presidential candidate were to announce his support for “amnesty” and called it that. 2

I admit to being a Facebook user, and among the more enlightening offerings of that scene are the postings of Humans of New York. It is the work of a photographer, Brandon Stanton, who takes pictures of people on the streets of guess-where and includes a quote or a few paragraphs about them. He has taken several trips outside the Big Apple, most notably to Iran and other places in the Middle East, and recently to countries along the diffuse and tortuous paths between Syria and the West. Recently, documenting refugees’ situations within Europe, he told the story of a Syrian he had met in Iraqi Kurdistan last year.

His name is Muhammad. He had fled the war in Syria and was working in an Iraqi hotel when Brandon got him to be his interpreter. Brandon found him again a year later, in Europe of all places, and caught up on what he had been through.

(If you’re on Facebook, you can skip my summary below and read the original series starting with the first installment which was on September 26, 2015. Click here to read it, and then you can go “next” to follow the story. If you don’t do Facebook, Brandon’s blog has the same stories but you can’t click from one to the next in order. Muhammad’s story is in six installments, as follows: 1/6, 2/6, 3/6, 4/6, 5/6, 6/6.)

Muhammad had saved up money from his Iraqi hotel job, working 12 hours a day at the hotel and teaching English “in his free time.” (“I work 18 hours per day, every day. And I have not spent any of it. I have not bought even a single T-shirt.”) He amassed 13,000 euro to buy fake papers and pay for the smugglers and bribes he would need. Along the way, in Istanbul, his sister contacted him and said their his father had been badly beaten by police and was in the hospital. Then his brother was killed by ISIS and “They found our address on his ID card, and they sent his head to our house, with a message: ‘Kurdish people aren’t Muslims.’ My youngest sister found my brother’s head. This was one year ago. She has not spoken a single word since.” From Istanbul he paid a smuggler to go on a boat to Greece. That part of the story is perhaps the most harrowing, with being herded to the boat at gunpoint, the smuggler abandoning the boat, women screaming, the motor failing and the boat almost swamped.

Plastic Boat

Plastic Boat
Photo credit:
Brandon Stanton,
Humans of New York

Finally landing on a Greek island, thinking they were safe, they headed for a police station to register as refugees. When police intercepted them, they “acted like we were murderers and they’d been searching for us. They pointed guns at us and screamed: ‘Hands up!’ I told them: ‘Please, we just escaped the war, we are not criminals!’… They threw us into prison. Our clothes were wet and we could not stop shivering. We could not sleep. I can still feel this cold in my bones. For three days we had no food or water. I told the police: ‘We don’t need food, but please give us water.’ I begged the commander to let us drink. Again, he said: ‘Shut up, Malaka!’… He chose to watch seven people suffer from thirst for three days while they begged him for water. We were saved when they finally they put us on a boat and sent us to a camp on the mainland. For twelve days we stayed there before walking north. We walked for three weeks. I ate nothing but leaves. Like an animal. We drank from dirty rivers. My legs grew so swollen that I had to take off my shoes. When we reached the border, an Albanian policeman found us and asked if we were refugees. When we told him ‘yes,’ he said that he would help us. He told us to hide in the woods until nightfall. I did not trust this man, but I was too tired to run. When night came, he loaded us all into his car. Then he drove us to his house and let us stay there for one week. He bought us new clothes. He fed us every night. He told me: ‘Do not be ashamed. I have also lived through a war. You are now my family and this is your house too.'”


Photo credit:
Brandon Stanton,
Humans of New York

From there, Muhammad found his way to Austria and his story took a turn for the best. In a bakery he met a man who had been well treated in a visit to Syria years before, and took him under his wing. Muhammad studied German and went through the process fo gain citizenship. It took seven months while he learned German. When he asked the judge if he could have the interview in German instead of having a translator, he was in. He said the judge “pointed at my Syrian ID card and said: ‘Muhammad, you will never need this again. You are now an Austrian!'”

Not every story ends so happily, but many share the miseries and setbacks that Muhammad faced enroute to a better life. So was Muhammad a migrant or a refugee? Sometimes what we read makes it look like hordes of people are invading Europe to take people’s jobs and change their culture but that’s an incomplete picture at best. They are trying to escape death. They are leaving everything they love behind. Many want to stop the flow because these people are potential terrorists. They are trying to escape the terrorists! There are frantic reports of Muslims in Europe accosting western or westernized women and attacking them for the way they dress. That, of course, is criminal behavior and needs to be punished. Civilized societies can handle this, don’t you think?


p.s. What a mess! Since this situation involves people, there are no easy explanations, solutions, or irrefutably right answers. There are reports that the people fleeing to safety in Europe are not all refugees and therefore not deserving of the attractive everybody-be-nice-and-help-your-fellow-man treatment. At a minimum, it’s a huge problem of sorting things out.

p.p.s. And yes, this: Pope Francis Calls On Europe’s Catholics to Shelter Refugees. Crazy, huh?

Big Promises

Efforts of the United States to foster democracy have been seen in the wider world as anything from heroically successful (for example, Japan’s postwar constitution) to arrogant and misguided (just about anything since then). In 1989 and the early 1990s Americans felt pretty smug about the collapse of the former Soviet Union. We celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall, sharing in the exuberance felt all over Western Europe. We cheered the Chinese demonstrators in Tienanmen Square. We overwhelmed Kuwait to keep it from Sadaam Hussein, and got in the middle of the Serbs and Bosnians.

With so much going on all around the world in that tumultuous period, it didn’t take long for us to get up our Democracy-Missionary spirit. We rushed into the chaos in Central and Eastern Europe, to tutor the disenfranchised and disoriented citizenry about democracy and free-market capitalism. The United States Peace Corps sent over a mix of starry-eyed young people, retirees off their rockers, and a few mid-career Enron and financial-crash refugees. What did the host countries need? Sure, we’ll deliver; we’re America. Teach you how to run businesses and community services in a decentralized economy? Check! Teach you English, to do business in the West? You bet! And for good measure, we’ll throw in all you need to know about environmental protection, to clean up the mess made by those dirty old Soviet-affiliated factories. Sure, got ya covered!

Democracy and freedom in Bulgaria had some unexpected twists in their early and unaccustomed form. For pupils in schools, it meant not having to follow the old disciplines and military-style decorum. For teachers, it meant that routine decisions would be made by voting in meetings; the Principal would call for a vote and everybody said “Da” to approve whatever it was. “There’s already a policy,” I asked once, “so shouldn’t the principal just decide that case?” A shrug. “That’s Democracy.” The Principal would not be a dictator. Meanwhile, in elections from the national down to the local level, most people I knew — neighbors, students, shopkeepers (like the shoe store man), and my friend Dimitar the Economist — assumed that politicians were crooked, elections were rigged, and achieving economic success was impossible except for those with shady connections.

It was 2002 and 2003 when I was there. Thirteen years had passed since the fall of the old regime, and the people had been struggling to figure out how to make it work. The Peace Corps had been in on it for eleven of those years. “Facing toward the West” and joining the European Union was going to make it all better.

What got me to thinking about all this was a photo essay I found recently called Broken Dreams: The Aftermath of 25 Years of Democracy in Bulgaria. The photos are sad, compelling, and recent. The article speaks of disillusionment with the promised changes and the persistence — even growth — of corruption. The photographer, Yana Paskova, was quoted as saying “it pained me to note a weariness, hopelessness and ennui, so standard in the Bulgarian passerby that it becomes routine… almost every single person I talked to communicated to me a lack of hope in political leadership and democracy.”

Another article on the mood of the country, Who put the monument in Pravets – the revival of the cult of Zhivkov  (published in e-vestnik.bg, in Bulgarian) describes the golden glow of old memories, with a “cult” growing back up around the deposed dictator Todor Zhivkov.

Monument. I took this photo while visiting fellow volunteer Janet B. in Pravets. I was surprised to find it in the e-vestnik article on Zhivkov.

Like in Ukraine, but without coming to violence over it, Bulgarians are divided on how much they loved or hated the Soviet-connected old days. There is a “powerful nostalgia for the times when life was certain, and electricity and heating were cheap.” The writer goes on to say that “people have forgotten how they used to derisively joke about the 20-year wait for housing and 15 for a car, they couldn’t travel abroad, there were abuses in all spheres of public life, and political persecution was rampant.”

As that nostalgia grows, and the ideals of democracy and freedom stutter and flail, the failure of our cherished ideals to flourish is troubling. Of course it took our own country a long time to develop these products of the American Revolution, and they’re still under continuous and very contentious development.

I wrote about a parent-teacher meeting in Breeze, where resignation and disillusionment prompted some dark musings on the state of the country.

People always said the pessimistic, passive outlook that was so pervasive was because of the 500 years “under the Turkish yoke” or the 50 years under Communism, or the struggles and failures in the transition to a free market economy, krisiata, “The Crisis.” Under Communism everybody worked. Then came krisiata and the sweeping changes after the fall of the former Soviet system. State-run factories closed, people lost their jobs, and the whole structure of how-everything-works was set adrift… But to believe the promises of the future? Better be careful. Don’t be hasty. We’ve heard big promises before… 

Nobody said it would be easy, did they?