Since traveling to Sri Lanka in 2004 following the tsunami, our foundation has sent trauma teams to Indonesia, Samoa, Japan, the Philippines and Nepal. We've worked with other international disaster groups for weeks at a time in remote mountain villages -- sometimes with only a dozen residents -- and played with thousands of children in makeshift relief camps in every corner of the world. Cyclones, tsunamis, earthquakes and superstorms all leave behind victims who must rebuild their homes and lives. As the refugee crisis worsened in Europe, and with the support of our donors, my son and I set off to train Red Cross workers near Zagreb who struggled to keep up with the increasing numbers of migrants headed for Western Europe.
This time, I have been away for about a week. As the plane touches down at the new Terminal 3 at Heathrow after a short trip visiting the refugee camp on the Croatian border, the frightened eyes of one resident there are still visible -- burnt on the back of my tired eyelids.
I walked the long jetway into what seems like miles of cold marble leading to a checkpoint below the huge sign, "UK Border." Here, I present my US Passport, answer the predictable "What is the purpose of your visit?" and "How long will you be in the UK?" and am quickly cleared to board the escalator down to retrieve my suitcase. I reflect on the fact that my US passport is a privilege easily taken for granted.
In my bag is only what I felt I'd need to visit both London and Croatia: a sturdy raincoat, a pair of good boots, three sweaters, as many shirts, a few pairs of jeans, a pair of dress slacks, underwear, socks, pajamas, toiletries, some wires and adaptors and something I rarely leave behind - a small temperature gauge. I find it difficult to sleep outside of about a ten-degree range, so it's helpful to have an accurate reading. Over my shoulder, I carry a small case that holds some snacks, my computer, two pairs of eyeglasses and the book I am reading, "The Children of Katrina."
About my age and roughly the same size, the man whose eyes remain in my consciousness probably left Syria many weeks before I left my home in Connecticut. Unlike him, I heard no bombs dropping near my home nor did I sense any imminent danger when I prepared to leave my home. While I saw the colors of changing leaves in the woods as I drove, he saw mostly burnt out buildings, piles of gray rubble, smoke still rising from the ruins of his corner market when he took flight. I bought groceries before I left and drove to JFK; he stuffed his small backpack with fruit and crackers, walked for days across a neighboring country and eventually climbed aboard a small rubber boat with a dozen others to float off to an unknown future. Only a mile from shore, the boat's pilot jumped into the water to return to shore leaving everyone else to make the trip alone. Nearly 3,000 of his friends drowned this year including one three-year-old boy whose picture the world has seen and will never forget.
On dry land hours later, my alter ego began a long walk similar to the tens of thousands like him who have made this journey. If he was one of the lucky ones, he was handed a bag containing bread, water and maybe some figs or grapes along the way, gifts of any number of good Samaritans in Greece or Macedonia who cheered him on. Many hours aboard a bus, a train ride packed to the max and then another long bus ride brought him to the camp near the Serbian border, at Opacovac, Croatia where we met less than a week ago. I was dry, well fed and dressed in warm clothing. He was every opposite.
At Heathrow, once I retrieved my suitcase, I walked through the exit marked "EU Arrivals." The doors at the other end just passed the inspection tables used by customs opened to shelves holding boxes of liquor, dozens of brands of perfume, jewelry, watches, chocolates and row upon row of gifts I could purchase without paying VAT. Welcome to the United Kingdom! I spotted the driver I'd asked to meet me and was soon on my way to my hotel in central London. I was in the back of a late model sedan.
Far from his home, my Syrian friend climbed down the stairs of the bus inside the fences of Opacovac where border police shuttled him into the UNHCR camp built to house 4,000. He was part of a group of 7,500; all led along a muddy path to sit on benches and processed. Neither he nor any of his group carried passports. He announced that he was seeking political asylum and wanted to go to Germany.
After a few hours sitting on wooden benches, he was taken to one of many tents where small cots had been stationed for him to stretch out and sleep. If he was lucky, he'd be under shelter; if not, he'd be outside in pouring rain under a thin poncho issued to him when he entered the camp. Asked if he had any medical issues, he also had an opportunity to visit a Red Cross station where he could receive emergency care for blistered feet, a hacking cough or diarrhea. I learned later that many sought help most often for these three maladies.
Plastic bottles of clean water were placed near the tents next to latrines where he and others could defecate. Most of the paths were covered with freshly placed gravel though some muddy patches remained. He received four pieces of bread stacked neatly on a napkin together with a tin of fish pâté and an apple. He may have left the camp the next day, boarding a bus to the Hungarian border to take another train through Slovenia to Austria; he might also have waited another three days before leaving the camp when Hungary closed their border the day after we met. I'll never know.
* * *
No one we met in London denied the moral necessity of allowing Syrians and others who made this journey entry into the European Union; at the same time, no one had answers as to how to improve the situation. With colder weather and the snows of winter looming around the corner, this migration will most likely turn into an even more desperate humanitarian crisis.
A vocal right wing is calling for closed borders, and some immigrants are already being deported. Europe has quickly become a tinderbox, tense and volatile without leadership and consensus, burdened by struggling economies made worse by the demands of millions of refugees seeking opportunity. One German man told us about a small country village in Bavaria where 200 residents have lived peacefully for centuries. The government just settled 2,000 refugees there.
* * *
The ride into London presented me with the most extreme cognitive dissonance I've ever experienced. Every third car a six-figure purchase, the owners hurrying into restaurants and clubs where champagne and caviar overflow. Shop windows sparkle while the homeless panhandle between fur coats, diamonds and cashmere. Drunken rugby fans mix with art collectors considering million-dollar abstracts for their living rooms. Crowds of shoppers along Regent Street seem oblivious to life outside the comfort zone of an illusory future, sobered no doubt for a few moments by the morning news. Consumerism may be the most destructive degenerative sickness of our culture, and fashion, as Mark Twain remarked, the whore of time. Together, they take our attention away from poverty, wealth disparity and world hunger.
* * *
Refugees in Opacovac cannot adjust the temperature in those tents to help them sleep, and I cannot deny my life of privilege. Now, returning to the US, we all live amidst this unbelievable paradox of haves and have-nots. It will take all I've got to reach deep into my soul for the resilience, hope and optimism I had with me when I left home.
Truth be told, this trip ripped my heart out. For those of us at Second Response, there is not much more we can do but keep on keeping on.
May I, and all beings, be free from suffering.