Book Review: Where is the Mercy?

Peter Bricklebank 

Map of Hope and Sorrow
Helen Benedict & Eyad Awwadawnan
Footnote Press 2022

Refugees disturb us. It’s unnerving to think of displaced peoples, of tyrannical regimes, of human traffickers, of insouciant, insentient governments. It puts in question how safe the self. Surely we can cheer that Western leaders are helping beleaguered, not-so-long-since bankrupt Greece provide entrée to the enlightenment beyond despots and religious fanatics? Are we not saying: “Welcome. We have shelter for you. You’ve reached a better place.”? Shuffling over a little to make room, does this not say we care? But we also know governments find ways to look proactive yet askance. Perhaps we’re not aware that European leaders are using those Greek islands as dolosse, sluicing this tide of fleeing humanity into backwaters, quietly channeling the displaced back whence they came. 

We should question how we as a world—not continent, not nation—deal with spates of resourceless people fleeing autocrats and death squads and penury and sexual exploitation and repression. Mass migrations are the future of humanity, after all, once water and food become scarce, after economic meltdowns and social boil-overs shrivel patience and empathy, when climate inundates and our terra firma—as our politics—becomes corrupted and muddy. 

So I suggest you might want to read this book by people who, in their own words, “were not born refugees.” It’s astutely organized by the co-authors, British-American journalist Helen Benedict and Syrian Eyad Awwadawnan, a man once about to attend law school who became a refugee himself after the dictator Bashir al-Assad barrel-bombed his own people. Benedict gives us context in an introduction, both authors add background detail to build our wider understanding, and useful thumbnail maps detail the harrowing trek of each asylum seeker. Awwadawnan speaks clearly and honestly of his survival and the authors present the experiences of five other men and women—people from Syria, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Cameroon. We are shown life before flight, during its rigors, and in the far-from-Elysium afterlife as a custodial refugee. This approach reveals the humanity and bravery of these determined people. 

But who voluntarily abandons their homeland? Asmahan, six months pregnant, leaves Syria’s turmoil because, among other things, a brother shouldn’t take four bullets when crossing the street to buy yogurt. Evans escapes extreme Nigerian homophobia by jumping from a window—his partner mercilessly beaten to death—only to later fall into the clutches of human traffickers and sold. Mursal witnesses her father, a doctor for Médecins Sans Frontières, thrashed by the Taliban for refusing to minister to their fighters. 

Armed zealots fire guns in your driveway; you fear going to a shop for food; education becomes impossible. When a fanatical regime decides to send a road straight through the middle of your family’s house, leaving but one room to live in, would you remonstrate with ideologues or would you carefully decamp? When prison terms and whippings are part of the everyday landscape, might you abandon your  home?  When men signing up to be Daesh fighters receive 300 dollars and a house (taken from someone else) or a wife (forced against her will), might you flee? 

On every journey, danger dogs the weary: starvation, hypothermia, rape. Refugees shuttle between traffickers who fail them, demand payment again, and fail again. Hasan endures such poor nutrition during his travails that his bone marrow no longer could produce blood. He’s later forced by traffickers to work his passage, piloting an overburdened, inflatable boat of 48 people to rescue in Greek waters, only to find himself charged as a criminal—his hand on the tiller—rather than seen as one fleeing them. There are few sharks in the Aegean but human smuggling is its own feeding frenzy.

Yet, to arrive in Greece at what would seem like the sanctuary of a refugee camp, one’s problems aren’t over. Europe, like us all, fears The Other. And Europeans have been perfecting camp incarceration for a while now. The housing might be tents, or shelters made out of sticks and blankets, or upside-down U-shaped pipes, or wooden cubes wrapped in blue tarp perhaps tapped into a nearby streetlight (even a goodish camp might have no electricity). A steel shipping container might be divided via blankets into thirty-nine spaces. Neither cozy nor safe. 

A camp is a place of endless queueing to reach a functioning toilet, a shower, a meal, or the camp’s single doctor or nurse or psychotherapist. Imagine waking at 3:00 a.m. to queue six hours for breakfast, then onto the next line. Perhaps to obtain the five different identity cards a refugee needs to officially exist in Greece. (One, the Ausweis, employs the same German word for ID the Nazis used, which might give you a sense of our bureaucratic attitude towards these marooned people.) 

The camps enforce a soul-sucking tedium while internees wait months getting, then constantly renewing, official paperwork. Some wait years. I’m put in mind of the medieval oubliette, where the unwanted were left to rot. Camps are filthy, garbage-strewn places of stasis and stagnation rather than refuge. The island of Lesbos hosts the largest refugee camp in Europe: Moria, a temporary reception area that boomtowned into “an open prison from hell” for 7,000 traumatized people. Members of a far-right party have greeted those sheltering there with bats, rocks, and salutations like “burn them alive.” When a refugee collapsed in a Greek street he was told there were no ambulances for Black people. “Where is your mercy?” he pleaded. Does this sound dismissible because seemingly distant? Or all too familiar?

Surely our governments have things in hand, no? Consider Camp Zervou, which holds 3,000 refugees with electronic bracelets and flying drones. It costs 38 million euros—surely caring generosity right there. Its tall metal fences are topped with barbed wire and a camera surveillance system tracks those inside. The EU has given 4.2 billion euros to Turkey to tend refugees, but the Taliban hunt down refugees there as easily as they do in Afghanistan. In any case, Turkey returns many of the refugees to the regimes they fled. How far might all this money have gone if used more positively rather than to curtail and corral? Do such large sums measure our deep compassion?

When an NGO sued a camp manager over the heinous conditions, the individual, with unblinking gall, countersued for defamation. The UN declared the same camp “a human rights catastrophe.” Many helpful NGOs have now been banned for the risible notion that they entice refugees to Greece in order to make money off them. So, indeed, where is the mercy?

Interviews with female refugees and adds a valuable section on the particularly vulnerable plight of women. Under refugee rules, special protection is supposedly extended to single and pregnant women, but human rights organizations fall pitiably short in safe housing, bathrooms, sanitation, and essential psychological care. A woman huddling in a flimsy tent with a tiny padlock between herself and male malevolence hasn’t much to believe in. Contrast this with the security measures of Camp Zervou itself. 

But a more compassionate and effective response is possible for women and all displaced persons. In an epilogue, both authors suggest what is needed and what can be done, on the personal level all the way up to governmental initiatives. Putting aside our unwillingness to develop a deep sense of responsibility to our own species, we need practical approaches to the problem, and what’s offered here is sensible and sustainable, humane and sane.

This is not a work of history; the situations described here are ongoing as you read this. Some of those who tell their stories still languish. In 2022 there were 100 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide. Such numbers stun. They make the oral testaments of those who speak despite—and through—their fear all the more valuable and poignant. Map of Hope and Sorrow documents our spectacular inadequacy when facing the suffering of our own and in upholding the rights of all. It maps where we are and how we might get somewhere better. It’s a signpost of where we are going if we don’t find ways to care more. It’s also a testament to the resilience of hope. It’s a book for us all. While we wait.