Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Refugee

Every day a Syrian, Eritrean, Libyan, a Somali dies leaving their country, seeking safety, freedom, a better life, dreams for their families.

Every day Americans go about their lives, getting Starbucks, meeting friends for drinks, complaining about poor service, getting kids ready for another school year.

Last night a refugee tried to open the door on my flight from Kigali to Brussels and jump out. 

Every flight out of Kigali, Rwanda there has been refugees.  You can’t miss them, big lanyards around their necks with all their documents courtesy of IOM, International Office of Migration, clutching bags with all their worldly possessions, fear, uncertainty, panic written on their faces.  Last night there was no such procession of refugees in Kigali, they boarded in Nairobi.  Kenya is home to one of the largest refugee camps in the world, Dadaab.

Several months ago, while boarding a flight out of Kigali, there were Congolese refugees who boarded ahead of me.  People of all ages with the youngest and the oldest looking most fearful, the 20, 30, 40 year olds looking stoic, strong.  As we boarded chaos ensued as these 50 refugees tried to find their seats.  They had never been on a plane.  This old man, just stood in the aisle looking at this little snippet of paper with his seat number on it.  He had no idea what he was looking at or why he was holding the paper.  I started helping the flight attend seat people.  As I helped the old Congolese man to find his seat, I couldn’t help but think, “Is this really better for him?”  I did not know his final destination—Europe or the US, it didn’t mater it was galaxies away from his world.  I can only imagine, having visited DRC, he was probably from some small village in the middle of the jungle, a village which probably migrated to a camp in search of safety.  They could have been fleeing one of the many warring factions, which keep the area in constant turmoil.  Chaos and war is highly lucrative to the few, the powerful.

What will this old man do in the first world, a world of speed, efficiency, and technology?  It seems at times we think, “Why wouldn’t someone want to move to the US after living with no electricity and plumbing in a mud hut miles from civilization?”

His mud hut, his village life is all he’s ever known.  It’s home.  I believe, given a choice, he would return to his village if it were safe. 

I believe Syrians, Libyans, Somalies just want their homes back, their lives back.  They want the right to raise their families in a safe environment in their culture.

It is what angers me about the many leaders or lack of government leaders who cause so much destruction among their people. 

I never saw the IOMs, as the “industry” calls them, board the plane.

At 5:20am I was awoken by an announcement asking if there was a doctor on board.  We were about an hour and 30 minutes from landing in Brussels.  I was sound asleep in seat 5K, business class savoring the “bed”, good food and calm I spent an extra $700 for to upgrade. 

With my sister being a doctor, this is a recurring conversation between us.  She has been on two flights where they have asked for a doctor on board and did CPR on someone as they were boarding a plane.  When I heard the announcement I thought of my sister.

Several minutes passed, the activity happened at the back of the plane so I didn’t hear much.  As I tried to pick up words in French and pieces of conversations among flight attendants at first it seemed if it was just a rowdy group of people who got into an argument.  Then a woman was brought to the galley directly behind my row and she began wailing, it was not crying, it was wailing.

The Captain came back on the intercom and announced we would be landing in Vienna, Austria.  We needed to get the plane down.  There was so much speculation at our end of the plane as to what happened.  We were on the ground in less than 30 minutes.

As we landed I checked my watch.  Hopefully we would be airborne again quickly.  My first feeling was annoyance; annoyance for all the craziness, which happens on this continent on a daily basis. 

As the minutes ticked away into hours I started to embrace the possibility of a missed connection in Brussels and an already long trek back to the US being made even longer.  I meditated.   I prayed for a quick resolution.

When the plane finally took back off a total of 7 people had been offloaded with luggage, most of us in business class still thinking it was just a rowdy group of people causing this massive hassle and delay.

And then I spoke with a flight attendant as we waited to deplane in Brussels. 

The melee was caused by a refugee who panicked.  He wanted off the plane even if it was at 35,000 feet.  He had become agitated and then went for the door and was stopped by several passengers and flight attendants.  He was too far-gone, panic and paranoia had set in. 

The flight attendant said in 10 years of flying he thought he’d seen it all.  He shook his head and said, “I never thought I’d see this, someone trying to jump out of the plane.”

He also told me he was with the group of refugees who had boarded in Nairobi.  He said Brussels Airlines flies thousands of refugees every year but the past couple of years have been the worst as far as numbers.  He’s had to show people how to use the toilet, the sink, and seatbelts.  These are people who may have come from never having used indoor plumbing. 

They trudge through deserts, minefields, past rebels and roadblocks all in hopes of arriving at an overcrowded refugee camp alive. 

Then the UNHCR processes the “lucky” ones and puts them on planes and sends them to new homes in the first world.

Never in a million years could most of us relate. 


At that point perspective set in and instead of praying for me to make my connection I prayed God would watch over that man and his family if he has any left. 

Why do people do this to one another; the fighting, the corruption, the exploitation, the fleeing and the dying, literally, for a new life?  How can we, in and of this world, allow this to happen?

A Syrian toddler dead on the shores of Turkey

And when I land in the US later today it will be as it’s always been and once again, I will be unable to relate.  And as much as I’ve wanted to come home for peace and quiet and structure and order, I will be thinking about this man, these refugees, this toddler.








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