The Boy on the Beach
My coffee this morning has come with a side of bright blue sky and a fresh breeze darting in through the open windows. Die Lüdde is still asleep, tucked up in her cot, safe and warm. I’m sitting here in the kitchen trying to decide whether I should say something, and if so, what.
It is a funny thing, the notion of feeling pride in a country you don’t come from. I guess I was sort of proud when Germany won the football world cup, even though I don’t really watch football. I feel a little buzz when Germany is praised on the global stage, and similarly defensive when it is taken to task for something the rest of the world disapproves of. I am not German, so my feelings towards this country are not not innate, rather learned and shaped by the specific experience of being foreign here, and choosing to remain here. It is a complicated kit I use to figure out my feelings and stances related to my adopted home. And of course, my experience as a foreigner is going to be quite different to others’; my skin colour and my country of birth make it easier for me. But while I can talk of loving where I live, or being pissed off, or supporting something this country stands for, or being disparaging of a certain mentality, to be proud of it is an entirely different matter. Pride seems connected with ownership or ancestry or blood.
I saw a picture yesterday, of a little boy on a Turkish beach, lying on his belly, head turned to the side. My daughter sleeps in that position too. I remember when she started sleeping like that, being terrified she’d stop breathing, and watching her endlessly. The little boy on the Turkish beach wasn’t sleeping, he was dead. He had drowned, frightened and cold and alone, because his parents put him on a boat to try and get him out of Syria. His brother died too. And his mother. The father survived and made it to Europe, a continent equipped with the task of processing and settling hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people seeking asylum. Germany is destination number one – and being someone who partakes of its security, its reasoning, its protection of its citizens, I can understand why. Germany has opened its doors and will take nearly a million refugees this year, of which an estimated 60% will be from Syria.
The little dead boy on the beach in Turkey – his name was Aylan, and his five year old brother, Galip – broke this whole thing wide open. Until him, I suppose I was able to read about this crisis, watch the number of refugees climb, scan the editorials, and feel a sort of stagnant, automatic compassion. But the little boy, on his belly, his face to the side has stripped back the layers and layers of politics and fear and a depressingly instintive xenophobia that have thus far removed us, as humans, from what is a most fundamentally human crisis. It doesn’t matter how all of this came to be, just like it doesn’t matter to a firefighter pulling people out of a burning building, who started the fire. It will matter later, but not now, not while the building is burning and there are still people inside. Nothing else matters at this point in time, than doing what is right by our fellow humans. And what is right, is offering a little piece of our privilege, and safety, kindness, and shelter.
The editorials are quick to point out the Neo Nazis, and the super right wing, the people protesting against refugee centres, setting them on fire. Every country has its dickheads. Every country has those uncomfortable with the idea of sharing with the unfamiliar. Every country has its darkness, not just Germany. The question is, is that darkness on a national scale? Is that darkness pushing out the light? I don’t think so. I see, overwhelmingly, light. I see Germans shutting down hateful speech and hateful acts, shutting down the voices driven by a refusal and an inability to see these people as desperate and homeless and at the mercy of foreign lands and people to give them something their own country has relentlessly and deliberately and cruelly deprived them of. I see open doors and I hear ‘refugees are welcome’, and I read stories of shipping container villages popping up to house thousands.
When I saw little Aylan lying in the water, and it all came together in one big devastating wave of real understanding, something else sprung up alongside the terrific sadness. A feeling of pride. Not in and of myself, for my hands aren’t involved in any work beyond typing unhelpful posts that do nothing but help me process my own throughts. I am proud of Germany. I am proud of what it is doing – as much as it can. I am proud it has recognised the right thing to do here, here and now, is to offer people safety and figure out the rest later. I am far, far prouder of the country I live in than the one I come from, whose attitude to ‘boat people’ could not be colder or, to borrow Joachim Gauck’s word, darker.
I don’t know what will come of this mass human movement, no one does because no one can. The impact is presently immeasurable. A lot of good will come from it, and bad, because no concept with a direct opposite exists in isolation in humanity. Germany as a country will change, but give me one country that has ever stayed the same. Germany now is not the Germany of thirty years ago, when a wall split it in two, and it isn’t the Germany of seventy years ago, when 12 million of its citizens were fleeing a regime that killed millions. And such a line of thought is applicable to each and every nation. The further back we go, the more layers we peel from national identity and culture, the more we see that as people, as groups and tribes and countries, we have always moved, the borders have always changed. And we move and we mingle and disperse and unite and disband and our understanding of what we are is and always will be temporary. But right now, in this moment, as human beings flee what was once their home, and ask for a roof over their heads and the chance not to start again, but to stay alive, to keep going, the right thing to do is say yes.
I don’t see a country struggling with the refugee question, nor one losing the battle to darkness, despite the columns and the op-eds and the incendiary reporting. I come from a country struggling with the refugee question, sure, but I live in one that is doing right by hundreds of thousands of human beings. And I am proud.