Open The Gates
One year ago Europe closed her gates to the flood of humanity pouring in from war-torn Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other Middle Eastern countries. One year ago, I was swimming neck-deep in Germany’s efforts to welcome and integrate any and all who made it to her borders. The pools I swam in were rich with hope, muddy with fear and anxiety, and swirling deep with mourning.
The people I had come to know and deeply admire mourned the loss of their home and culture. They had suffered much over the years… had hung on until all hope in a future in their beloved homeland was destroyed, and they were forced to let go and run. The tides took them over snow-capped mountain ranges and through rivers and jungle, dumping them on dirty streets in strange cities. The force of their march overcame their fear of the sea, propelling them onto crowded rubbery boats with nothing but air and a prayer between them and the deep. Many lost what little they still had…pictures, clothes, food, documents, cell phones…to those waters when backpacks and plastic bags were desperately tossed away as the air leaked out and the threatening salty waves crashed in. Rocky shores were reached and, soaking wet and utterly amazed at their survival, they ran on. Through the hastily thrown up reception centers in Greece, flooding highways and train stations as they ran northward, various streams convoluting and gaining size and force as they rushed up through the Balkans and into Hungary and Austria, who swiftly and purposefully channeled the flow through and on to Germany.
In contrast, Germany, had opened her floodgates wide, fanning out the living rush to cities and communities throughout the land. School gyms, empty military facilities, warehouses and abandoned hospitals were stacked with rows and rows of bunk beds. The German military, Red Cross and community volunteer groups were mobilized to build fences and toilets and shower facilities. City employees… accountants, managers, office staff, janitors, and anyone who could speak Farsi or Arabic…were reassigned literally overnight to staff these reception centers. Imperfect but willing, they reached out and caught the weary, wrung-out masses as they tumbled in, trainload after trainload, offering them rest, security, and the possibility of a future.
And so, in the one and half years since then, this flood has mixed and pooled and slowly begun to sink in to the German soil. Like a wildfire brings renewal, this new mass of life contained within its depths the spores of youth, energy and know-how the German economy and social system desperately needs. As it is worked into the system and nurtured with hope and security, roots are beginning to form and the buds of success are just beginning to sprout.
But stagnant water, no matter how clear to begin with, loses oxygen, becomes lifeless, sick and dark. Fear closed the floodgates and stopped the flow one year ago, and the western world created an ecosystem of sticky, black despair. These hope-filled, hard-working, peace-seeking people cannot go back. Only death and terror lay upstream. And now they can’t go forward. More than 60,000 people are caught in the swamps of Greece. Millions are pooling in the Middle-Eastern countries where bombs and hate and a complete disregard for life have infested and poisoned the land. They freeze in tents, sit in mud and squalor in front of our self-made fences and slowly succumb to fear and desperation.
What are we thinking? What do we expect these human beings will do as we look the other way and pretend they aren’t there? We aren’t just shutting them out, we are poisoning the wells from which our future will be forced to drink. In a time when Europe is desperate for a young, educated working class - unable or unwilling to create their own future– they are shutting out the strong, willing backs which could carry their social system. At a time when not only nations, but also neighborhoods, public spaces and personal identities are being terrorized, we are closing the doors to the very people who have lost everything to that same enemy once already. They know what it looks like, how it smells, where it lurks. We hold them at bay and allow fear to label them the disease, when they are the very cure – these displaced people are the best early warning system we will ever develop. They will fight it with everything they have. They will not let it destroy their remaining hope, their only future, their last stand.
The water is there. This water won’t just evaporate. The only true choice we have is whether to allow it to flow and bring hope and life, or to continue to trap it and force stagnation. Let’s apply our energy and finances towards cultivating and integrating. Let’s let the water flow again and harness it’s natural gifts and power. Let’s allow this water to wash out and cleanse our present, and to nourish and rejuvenate our future. Let’s let go of fear and reopen the gates.
The Emerald Project is a Utah-based organization that carefully designs dialogues to engage with non-Muslims to make Salt Lake Valley a more welcoming home to Muslims. As many of our refugee friends belong to the Muslim faith, we applaud opportunities that foster understanding and were pleased to support The Emerald Project’s 3rd annual “Slam the Islamophobia” event on February 15th.
Refugees often risk their lives crossing deserts, jungles, and oceans all in the search for shelter, freedom, or happiness. Yet, even once they’ve reached physical safety, mental mountains emerge that make daily life an uphill climb. At the November 2022 conference for the Utah Chapter of the Society for Public Health Education (USOPHE), presenters Shurooq Al Jewari and Sasha Sloan discussed mental health and inclusion, focusing on immigrants and refugees.