This is a Refugee Camp
Rumor and Fact
Politics as Usual
Neither a Beggar nor a Borrower
If there’s a theme that runs through nearly all of the writing I’ve done, it stems from what I’ve learned, over and over, while traveling and meeting all kinds of different people, all around the world. That lesson is this: we are all the same. At heart, we all have the same concerns, the same dreams, the same fears, the same foibles and prejudices, and the same hopes. This applies as much to the people I grew up with in Western Pennsylvania as it does to the people from the tiny Muslim village in Sri Lanka where my father-in-law grew up. It applies as much to my African-American cousins as it does to my Mexican-American roommate in college. We are all the same. This may sound simplistic, or naive. It’s not. It is truth, and it’s the most basic response we can form when someone tries to tell us that THEY pose some sort of threat to US. These definitions, “us” and “them,” do not exist, except in our minds. They are the product of fear and ignorance. We have a choice. We can either give in and allow them to define our reality, or we can see them for the illusions they are.
Since the election a few weeks ago, we have watched as racial, religious and culturally-based violence and intimidation has increased, and intolerance and xenophobia has taken firmer root in the United States. This is not a uniquely American phenomenon. It’s part of a global trend of attempting to separate groups of people into “us” and “them.” While I hope that it is not the beginning of something much worse, it nevertheless demands a response.
My response has been to say to myself the same thing I will now say to you: If you have a voice for tolerance and humanity, or some capacity to spread stories of compassion and empathy, or even simply the ability to connect with another human being who may come from somewhere unfamiliar to you, right now might be a pretty good time to pull it out of wherever you keep it, dust it off, and put it to good use. We like to look back at some specific time in history and think that, had we been there, we would have been on the right side of it. That time is now.
I don’t have any illusions. I understand that prejudices tend to stick. One of the easiest positions to adopt is that of the dismissive skeptic. I don’t know if the stories I have to tell—the stories we all have to tell— will impact many people, or open many eyes, or change many minds.
But I’m going to try.
is re-publishing online an essay called
. Its immediate subject is a trip to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota many years ago, but its historical and moral parallels echo the current protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Reservation. The story is illustrated with the amazing wet-plate collodion photography of
, an ambrotypist based in Bismark, North Dakota. His images are beautiful and haunting and look like they might have been taken a century ago, even though every one of them has been created within the last four years using a technique that’s been around since the 1850s. He’s an amazing artist and an even nicer person, and you should have a look at his work and maybe support it, which you can do
During the past year, I chronicled the establishment, life, and destruction of a refugee camp that sprang up here in Brussels as the exodus from war and economic devastation in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya poured into Europe. The series is
, on the website of
The Los Angeles Review of Books
. I’m also working on a larger, book-length project based on some of the stories told there.
In the next print issue of Consequence, due out next spring, I’ll have a review of a Hakan Güday’s novel, More, which looks at the ongoing refugee crisis through the eyes of the human traffickers who bring the refugees to Europe. It’s an unusual and brave point of view to adopt, daring us to empathize with the people nearly everyone identifies as the bad guys.
Oh, and just in case you might have any questions about what we’re up against, it’s