War, as the game says, war never changes. The world is on fire, as it usually is. It’s been the Middle East of late, with thousands dead in Syria and no end in sight. The early days of a few years ago were a rush of optimism, of the hope that another dictator would topple, and another nation would get a chance at freedom. But the war has ground on, Assad seems no closer to falling in the multi-sided fighting that is closer to anarchy than a campaign, and the strongest force in opposition to him most months is the nightmare that is ISIS.
Rumors are that the Russians are building bases, in preparation for outright support for Assad. The West was going to send weapons, then they weren’t, now there might be airstrikes. The international community at large is mostly impotent, caught between indifference, a universal unwillingness to wage yet another war in the Middle East, a teetering European economy, and the omnipresent Russian veto in the Security Council.
But those are the broad strokes of history, that can’t see humans for the humanity. The little stories still exist though in the moments of people who are flooding out of the region. And in this age of a world grown small, many have managed to claw their way not to refugee camps on the other side of an imaginary border, caged in and waiting for a future that may just be more camps. They’ve made it through Turkey and to the ancient gates of Europe. They have fought their way to foreign shores, though that unforgettable photo of the drowned boy shows that the way is hardly safe.
They have poured in massive numbers into the European Union, oceans of them washing up into Hungary in particular, which has no idea what to do. Vacillating between trying to close the borders, and just letting the masses through deeper into Europe, this old nation still trying to find a stable place among the nations of the West seems almost lost at times.
Germany has let in the largest number, almost 80,000 this year. It’s not the first time either. They let in several hundred thousand refugees of the Yugoslav wars in the nineties, but then deported them en masse within three years.
There might be something different this time though. News agencies and government officials made a conscious change in the coverage this summer, declaring in footnotes and sidebars that they would no longer be referring to these individuals as refugees but as migrants. It might not seem like much, it might seem like absurd splitting of hairs, but every right idea is only a hair’s breadth from a bad one. The words have changed to reflect a belief in who and what these people are. Not helpless driven like cattle from their homes, but people with agency, people who are fighting and dying for a future for themselves and their children.
Iceland initially announced that they would let in 50 migrants over the next two years, in keeping with their stringent immigration policies that have only allowed in 500-odd migrants in the last half century. In the wake of that announcement, 11,000 citizens volunteered to take a migrant into their home. The country has about 315,000 households. In a week, one in thirty Icelanders volunteered to take someone they’ve never met, whose language they don’t speak, whose religion they do not share.
Would they really all take someone in? Would not the people begin to grouse and complain three years down the line? Start to blame the new immigrants when the economy crashes next or crime spikes or taxes too?
Yes. But it’s too easy to dismiss the first step just because we know that the third step will be difficult. The first step still matters.
Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir, a professor and award winning writer volunteered her own home and put up the money to pay for the travel expenses of five migrants herself. She said:
“Refugees are human resources, experience and skills. Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, our next soul mate, the drummer in our children’s band, our next colleague, Miss Iceland 2022, the carpenter who finally fixes our bathroom, the chef in the cafeteria, the fireman, the hacker and the television host. People who we’ll never be able to say to: ‘Your life is worth less than mine.’”
War never changes. People might.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.