“Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot, others transform a yellow spot into the sun.” Pablo Picasso
“What would you like the media to capture about the refugee crisis that isn’t being captured now?” This question came from a grade 11 student this week.
I had just finished a presentation to her class. I’d outlined my writing process and flashed pictures of places I’d been and the research I’d done while writing my novel. I also spoke about my motivations for writing this particular story of refugees who fall between the cracks of international law, and at times, compassion.
No one had asked me this particular question before. It stumped me a little both because of the depth of the question and its source. I’d obviously underestimated how informed and engaged teenagers were. It wouldn’t be the first time this happened this week either. Shame on me.
I often introduce my readings by quoting the number of refugees who flee their homes and those who die in transit. You might be able to imagine 850,000 people (the number of refugees who entered Europe via Greece in 2015) ending up on your doorstep or the close to 4000 individuals who died trying (the number of asylum seekers who died crossing the Mediterranean in 2015), but for me to understand these figures and try to make sense of them, I had to associate faces and names to the numbers. In other words, I had to concentrate on the lives of the few characters I had created in my novel in order to understand the plight of the many.
In response to the student’s question, I said I wanted to see more stories about the individuals and families who were seeking asylum. Who are they? How do they live? What are their dreams and aspirations? What challenges do they face? It’s these stories that help us personalize ‘the other’ and more importantly help us understand that the ‘other’ is no different than ‘us’.
In addition, I’d like the media to remain on this story. I don’t want them only to seek the sensational. Why? Because refugees continue to risk their lives to find freedom. Their struggles have not changed or been solved just because the media’s focus has moved on. This situation remains a global crisis. Unless we hear about it every day, get updates every single day, we won’t press our governments to find a solution.
Man, sometimes I can be on such a soapbox. You can lose an audience this way. But when I met the eye of the student who asked the question, she smiled. Others nodded. Nice to know some folks get me.
The students in another class this week had already heard my presentation and reading. They’d already read my novel. I had given them an assignment to write a scene between two characters who found themselves somewhere in the refugee crisis. This was my second visit and it was my turn to sit and listen to their work.
Each presentation revealed so much empathy for refugees it made me stupidly hopeful for humanity. One example: a fence separates two characters. The young woman behind the fence wants the other character, a man, to take her baby with him. He’s already climbed the fence, the man is free and wants to catch up to the rest of his family. The woman knows she can’t manage the fence with her baby, but she wants her baby to escape even if she can’t.
The dialogue between the two characters was filled with moral conflict. The man wanted to leave the woman and her problems behind, but as a family man himself, how could he ignore the woman’s predicament. The tension and suspense in the dialogue between the two characters was razor sharp.
I asked the students how they came up with this particular scenario.
“We’d watched some of the documentaries on the refugee crisis you gave us when you were here the last time. Until we saw those we didn’t know that some countries put up fences to keep refugees out.”
I nodded. Without knowing it, they too had responded to the question posed by the grade 11 student in a different class in a different school on a different day.
All the students I’ve met have taken the tiny spot of my novel and turned it into a galaxy of reflection. For this and so much more, I remain as I said earlier, stupidly hopeful for humanity.
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