Raoul Wieland reflects on the global refugee crisis through the lens of literature.
I am thinking about Aylan Kurdi and his life cut short. There is so much there to unpack and to understand. A great distance separates Bodrum Beach in Turkey, where he washed ashore, and my comfortable apartment in Montreal. I am feeling restless and heavy. Hours of absorbing reports, exposés, and videos on the Syrian catastrophe, the global refugee crisis and the many strands that connect us all and suggest collective responsibility have had an impact. Like so many other times when I have borne witness to—comfortably removed—the suffering of men, women and children all over the world, I have the strong impulse to understand and do. I want to yell and “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” and unable to meaningfully direct my energy, feel incompetent, useless, and culpable.
I have to do something, do I not? Facing oneself can become a challenge otherwise; at least on those few precious days when we stop and reflect; when we listen to and follow the emotions that arise. When we somehow manage to slip past the many protections that have been erected within to keep from feeling too vulnerable or too touched.
In moments like these, when I am in need of, perhaps one can call it guidance, or maybe a better word is solace, I often turn to literature. I find comfort in having my own thoughts and emotions so well mirrored in the books that I keep. And so tonight I sit with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s words that were given life by a tormented and heavy-hearted Ivan Karamazov:
It’s not God that I do not accept, you understand, it is this world of God’s, created by God, that I do not accept and cannot agree to accept. With one reservation: I have a childlike conviction that the sufferings will be healed and smoothed over, that the whole offensive comedy of human contradictions will disappear like a pitiful mirage, a vile concoction of man’s Euclidean mind, feeble and puny as an atom, and that ultimately, at the world’s finale, in the moment of eternal harmony, there will occur and be revealed something so precious that it will suffice for all hearts, to allay all indignation, to redeem all human villainy, all bloodshed; it will suffice not only to make forgiveness possible, but also to justify everything that has happened to men – let this, let all of this come true and be revealed, but I DO NOT ACCEPT IT AND DO NOT WANT TO ACCEPT IT!
I connect so well with this sentiment, this not understanding or wanting to understand or accept the world as it is and rages around us. “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together,” writes Italo Calvino.
‘Fortress Europe,’ it has been called. A place of refuge from war, hunger, and destitution that remains rigidly cordoned off with barbed wire and bureaucracy. ‘Regime Change Refugees’ and ‘Climate Change Refugees’ are more than mere labels but imply a complexity behind the lives of the thousands of men, women and children displaced in and from Syria and the wider region. They imply responsibility, culpability, and make a lot of people nervous; one can witness a reactionary politics. In Canada, for example, the place where Aylan Kurdi could have ended up in if it had not been for an ever more restrictive immigration/refugee policy, our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper rejected calls for Canada to take immediate action and allow Syrian refugees into Canada. Instead, he seemed to imply that what was needed were more boots on the ground; in other words, military intervention in Syria.
“Bombs,” writes Prashad, “are borderless. But war refugees must stand in queues and be held in concentration camps. They are not allowed freedom of movement.”
I am reminded again of Italo Calvino’s words. He writes that “there are two ways to escape suffering [the inferno]. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” I fear that Harper’s response, and the reactions of many of our politicians, falls into the first approach to dealing with Calvino’s inferno and the result: Aylan Kurdi’s body lying on “the other side of a barbed wire fence that separates him from the continents of the world” (Vijay Prashad, upon reflecting on an image drawn by Jordanian cartoonist Rafat Alkhateeb).
“I meant to talk about the suffering of mankind in general, but better let us dwell only on the suffering of children,” implores Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s novel. And so we dwell on Aylan Kurdi and ask ourselves for what sin was the child killed?
“Can you understand,” so Ivan demands of his brother, “that a small creature, who cannot even comprehend what is being done to her, in a vile place, in the dark and the cold, beats herself on her strained little chest with her tiny fists and weeps with her anguished, gentle, meek tears for ‘dear God’ to protect her—can you understand such nonsense, my friend,… can you understand why this nonsense is needed and created? Without it, they say, man could not even have lived on earth, for he would not have known good and evil. Who wants to know this damned good and evil at such a price? The whole world of knowledge is not worth the tears of that little child to ‘dear God’. I am not talking about the suffering of grown-ups, they ate the apple and to hell with them, let the devil take them all, but these little ones!”
Karamazov’s words hit home. The refugee crisis has been elevated to top priority because, one may argue, the image of a lifeless child, innocent and incapable of understanding why it was not wanted, appeared on everyone’s radar. It humbled and disturbed us all into an uncomfortable position of self-reflection and so one may hope, action.
“What was precious is gone,” said Aylan’s father. He had just filled out forms at a morgue to claim the bodies of his family and would now have to go back to the city in Syria that he had fled to put his family to rest.
In raging against the world and a God whose objective he questioned, Ivan asks “if everyone must suffer, in order to buy eternal harmony with their suffering, pray tell me what have the children got to do with it? It’s quite incomprehensible why they should have to suffer, and why they should buy harmony with their suffering. Why do they get thrown on the pile, to manure someone’s future harmony with themselves? I understand solidarity in sin among men; solidarity in retribution I also understand; but what solidarity in sin do little children have.”
Unredeemed tears, Ivan urges, must be redeemed, “otherwise there can be no harmony. But how, how will you redeem them? Is it possible? Can they be redeemed by being avenged?” Can Aylan Kurdi be avenged? What troubled paths would this lead us down?
And so Ivan responds to his own questioning: “What do I care if they are avenged, what do I care if the tormentors are in hell, what can hell set right here, if these ones have already been tormented? And where is the harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive, and I want to embrace, I don’t want more suffering.” And who do we, can we blame for this and the greater loss of life?
In a final challenge, Ivan concludes that “if the suffering of children goes to make up the sum of suffering needed to buy truth, then I assert beforehand that the whole of truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want harmony, for love of mankind, I don’t want it. I’d rather remain with my unrequited suffering and unquenched indignation, even if I am wrong. Besides, they have put too high a price on harmony; we can’t afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket. It’s not that I do not accept God… I just must respectfully return him the ticket.”
And so he, a troubled believer, turns his back to the world of God and, not accepting it—the inevitability of the inferno, the ever-present raging of the world—walks away. He has given up trying to understand and make sense of it all; the great design.
I sympathize with the impulse to rage against the multitude of crises—the inferno—that emerge anew and in different forms every day; I too feel helpless and am often left with only my emotions and an inability to take action, do and help; and in these instances it is tempting to walk away and allow nihilism to creep in.
And yet, finding it hard to believe in a ‘great design’ that sets us all upon a path, a destiny, I am bound to search for answers closer to home; in human politics and in human practices; in my own community, my own family and ultimately myself. This is not easy, and I must learn to make peace with my inability to help in most instances of need, or my, arguably, natural tendency to want to stay removed from suffering and protect myself from being touched too much; empathy and self-care rub shoulders and I confront myself harshly for limited empathy. I sit with uncomfortable feelings. I must face them.
And as I hold these tensions within me, I need to believe that my own path is more creative than destructive, more embrace forgiveness and love than inferno; and that my actions, as small as they may be, are not futile, nor trite nor trifle, but an important, creative, and healthy expression and outlet for all that is brought to bear on my troubled self. And if I stray too far, it is Aylan Kurdi, whatever form he may take, who acts as a reminder and call to conscience to keep engaging, reflect, and care, for while we may not be able to revenge the Kurdis of this world, I do believe that redemption can be found in our continued striving to “seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, [and] then make them endure, [and] give them space.”