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?

21 thoughts on “His Name Is Muhammad

    • Speaking for myself, I can say the same. Feelings torn in two directions. The obvious parallel is with the immigration situation here in the States, though magnified by the anguish flowing from war. More intense (makes me care) though physically far away (makes me not care). I am reminded of the words from the song we both know, “I can’t do all the good that the world needs, but the world needs all the good that I can do.”

  1. Amazing blog, Bruce. You are an excellent writer. Thanks for bringing us up-to-speed on this grave situation for Syrians. Russian aggression seems to be the current state of affairs over there, in Syria.

    • Thanks for the compliment, Mike. It’s really bizarre, isn’t it, that the Russians could be allied with us in defeating ISIS in the region but we may not want it to happen that way. While the US has been dithering with which factions to support in ousting Assad, Putin continues to maneuver from a position of strength. As recently as when Stormy and I were in Bulgaria, as far as Russia was concerned “we were all getting along so well” or so it seemed. The Peace Corps had even been invited to come help Russia with economics and education, but Russian pride was hurt by that and other American expressions of superiority, culturally, diplomatically, and militarily. After Putin came to power he threw them out.

  2. Goodness gracious. I hope Muhammad’s sister recovers and finds a better life as her brother did. Mind blowing how all of our struggles seem significant but pale in comparison to others’.

  3. I have wondered for a long time why we ever decided where countries begin and end? Why do some people have to live here and others get to live there? Pure accidents of birth. Pure selfishness from the very beginning. Resulting from fear? Violence? From above it must look like a planet, a home, we could all share. But then humans came on the scene with magic markers and began drawing lines. And then we had to start defending the lines. So sad.

    • Magic markers! Yes, dear Jana, I see magic marker lines and they are everywhere. People are always drawing lines. I have them around my house, the city has them so they can tell people where to build or dig, or buy and sell things, or eat and breathe. Boundaries, drawn by people. It’s nice to think we’d better without the big nation-lines though. Imagine, as the man wrote. All living together on the big blue marble. I have a song about that, sort of. It’s kind of a draft, or demo. Song of the Star People.

    • And thank you for reading! It’s real and close to home, all right, for better or worse. The immigration debate here at home is every bit as complicated as what we’re reading about streaming into Europe.

  4. We, in addition to Europe, need to welcome refugees as we did with the “boat people” from SE Asia 35-40 years ago. thank you, Bruce, for this concise, warmly told article.

    • And thank you for reading my blog! There was a Vietnamese family who moved in a few doors down from us in the mid-70s, a large family with their youngest kids the same ages as ours, just toddlers. They have been best friends since then — in each others’ weddings, traveling across the country to visit each other’s families. It was a family who escaped the war under cover, evading soldiers, hiding in a truck with the father’s hand stifling the baby’s cries like in the movies. Their friendship with our family has enriched our lives, and the kids are superb contributors to our country. The refugee program that brought them here was an excellent investment.

  5. Thanks for stretching my mind (and soul) regarding refugees and migrants. Funny how you have an opinion about this and then read a blog about a personal story that changes your mind. Thank you for your blog!

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