In Europe, tens of thousands of displaced people are arriving
each month. And in the United States, displaced people from
Latin America continue to flow across a porous southern
border. I witnessed the European migrant crisis firsthand.
During the winter of 2015-16, I spent close to six weeks
in Greece as a Fulbright Specialist. I was supported by the
Fulbright Foundation in Greece, and was assigned to assist
the municipality of Athens with its programming to address
the daily flow of thousands of people into their city. Refugees
(who are fleeing from war or other life-threatening danger)
and migrants (who are not fleeing danger, but seeking a
better life) were accumulating on city squares.
I spent most of my time in Athens but, on a weekend,
took a ferry to Lesvos, the Greek island furthest east in the
Aegean Sea, some 3 1/2 miles from Turkey. I also spent
time in the Port of Piraeus, the largest Greek seaport in the
Mediterranean Sea basin. Both places were entry points for
thousands of traumatized, displaced people. I saw volunteers
in each place from all over the world trying to help reduce
these people’s suffering.
Two people I met in the Port of Piraeus stick out in my
mind. One showed me the true grit of these displaced people.
The other showed me the heart of Europe.
Abdul is about 18. He and I picked up trash — the kind
that accumulates when you have tens of thousands of human
beings staying temporarily, laying on scraps of cardboard,
discarding peels from fruit that accompanied soup, and
disposing of diapers and other items without adequate trash
cans. There was a lot of trash. Abdul walked near me for
hours filling bag after bag. He told me his story. He and his
family are from Homs, Syria. They saw horrific death and
destruction. They spent a lot of time in basements during
heavy bombing. They fled and ended up in a refugee camp
in Turkey. From there, they were smuggled to Lesvos in a
dangerously overcrowded, inflatable boat. They stayed in a
camp on the island for two days. Then they came via ferry to
the Port Piraeus.
Abdul had not been able to finish high school. He studied
German and was hoping he and his family could make it to
Germany, where he eventually wants to go to college. When
I looked into his eyes, I could see trauma, but I could also see
hope. When I saw how hard he worked, I saw true grit. I saw
determination, a young man ready to sacrifice for the future. A
young man who, I have no doubt, will help put bread on his
family’s table, probably in Germany. A young man who will be
an asset to the European economy.
The world is experiencing the largest flow of displaced people since World War II. The primary drivers in
the Americas include gang violence, drug trafficking, and economic hardship. In Europe, where refugees
and migrants are flooding in from the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa, war is a major driver, along
with oppression, economic stagnation, global warming, and population growth relative to scarce resources.
In both cases, social media are sending images of people celebrating that they made it to the global North.
Those pictures and videos spread like wildfire, giving other people hope to embark on a similar journey.