I met her on a late night train from Paris to Lille. Covered from head-to-toe in drab brown clothing , she firmly grasped her two-year old son’s hand. Up and down the train aisle she paced looking for their assigned seats. No one offered to help or even acknowledged her, at least not until I approached. Heads turned at the sound of two women speaking Arabic and laughing loudly, and I wondered how we were being perceived: speaking our native tongue, my new acquaintance’s head covered with a hijab. When we found her seat, she asked me to sit down and asked if she could tell me her story. I reluctantly agreed, dreading what I might hear; I have had my share of woeful tales.
A Syrian refugee from a rural area near Bab Amr in Aleppo, Zeinab’s village had been heavily bombed by the Syrian army. An illiterate mother of four, she was much younger than I, but you couldn’t have guessed it by the difficult experiences she wore on her face. With a smuggler’s going rate set at 12,000 Euros to get her family of five to Greece, she had been forced to leave her husband and four children behind.
She asked for help. I asked to keep in touch. After I handed her a pen and paper, she admitted that she didn’t know how to write, and when I gave her my phone, she admitted that she couldn’t read or recognize numbers. When I asked to take a picture so that donors could put a face to her story, she declined, expressing fear that her husband might see the picture and become upset. I was not surprised; I had heard the same story before while working with women in Jordan, Egypt and Abu Dhabi. The only picture that had ever been taken of her was for her Syrian national ID. She had otherwise never seen a picture of herself.
Following this encounter, I felt the all too familiar stirrings of anger in my chest. Why are our women confined to such extreme measures? It’s just a picture! She’s illiterate – how will she survive in Brussels? Then it dawned on me: that is how she would survive. Being independent of her husband, having to work to feed herself and her son, and saving money to get the rest of her family to Belgium, she would necessarily have to learn to read and speak the language. The possibility of an education and joining the workforce were out of her reach in rural Syria. Additionally, even if her husband and children could make it over, both parents would have to work. A family of five living in a wealthy European country would require it.
Before Europe and women refugees lies an opportunity for growth and for shaping the future of a continent. A great power lies in refugees’ willingness and desire to integrate and build new lives, and Europe should harness and channel that power into pressing their countries forward as part of the solution to new migration challenges. It is truly a matter of giving these refugees the opportunities and resources to assimilate, under the condition that they commit to learning the language, culture and laws of the country in which they seek asylum. Knowing that they would receive access to education, work, acceptance into the social sphere, and potential political participation, would motivate refugees to learn.
In return, Europe could share in Chancellor Merkel’s original vision of utilizing refugees to meet labor demands. Merkel saw refugees’ potential to reshape Germany’s markets and institutions for the better. The opportunity to increase diversity in German society while also building a greater work force outweighed the economic and political challenges inherent to mass immigration. European culture is based on the notion of open societies and progressive values. It was in the EU’s capital that the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) was established, giving protection status to asylum seekers in Europe. This is not the time for the EU to compromise those standards. In doing so, European society fragments and ISIS’s agenda advances. CEAS, among other policies governing migration, must stay intact, because global conflicts and natural disasters will not cease to displace people. Safe havens need to exist in more privileged countries. Hope of rebuilding what has been destroyed needs to be protected.
We feel sympathy for the losses endured by the Syrian people and fear for the women and children on the migrant route. Once they arrive in Europe, many are unwanted and for us in the West, our perspective shifts from sympathy for the refugee to compassion for the host countries as we see repeated terrorist attacks that if not perpetrated by refugees, we suspect might have been influenced by refugee issues. It’s easy to miss the opportunities at the heart of migration when negative rhetoric is incessant, found at every turn of the channel. Images of people running in the streets of Paris have replaced the images of those fleeing the siege of Aleppo. The language has become despised, the hijab further construed into a symbol of a hostility. It’s at this juncture that we decide that unity and collaboration are no longer options, and opt instead for hate, fear and inaction.
But what does not move forward, moves back. The notion of the status quo is an illusion. Our notions about Muslim refugee women are equally as inept as the measure by which we judge their region and religion. It is precisely in shifting western perception of these women, in turning them from perceived enemies into allies, where value lies. It is a verifiable fact that women are a country’s best agents of change.
It is commendable to assist a woman in a faraway land with monetary donations. But is this not the same woman, currently on your doorstep and being demonized for it? It is this woman, hopeful and ready, who is your best ally. Why does this knowledge escape us? Because we are gripped by fear. Fear prevents us from seeing that in her grip on her son’s arm, she is not leading him to take advantage of a country’s social welfare system, but that rather she is leading him – and more importantly – herself to a place where she can work towards a safer and more prosperous future. Zeinab is ready! It just takes those around her to see what she already knows. She is Europe’s new ammo.