What it means to become a refugee

For most people, most of the time, the news is a kind of background noise. It’s something to which we are willing to give some attention and when our attention tires, our gaze moves elsewhere. The media, forever hungry for attention, tosses up something new to revive its weary audience. But relentless stimulation produces numbness.

All too rarely is the news told from the inside. We mostly hear the voices of passive observers who serve as uninformative guides to a mass of rubberneckers. But every so often, there is an exception — such as this:

Kim Ghattas writes: Last month, 44 children died at sea trying to cross to safety from the Middle East to Europe. None of them made world headlines. The world has moved on since the body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach, briefly focusing the globe’s attention on the crisis. According to Google Trends, searches for the word “refugee” have already declined by more than half.

Every single one of these stories throws me back to a dark time in my own life, a time of helplessness and fear.

I was never a refugee, but I could have been. For the first 12 years of my life, I lived in a no-man’s land in Beirut, on the front lines of a war that ravaged my country. I was born two years into the 15-year conflict, and bombs and shelters seemed normal to me while growing up, just part of everyday life, like having breakfast and going to school. We had no power or running water for days on end; stray bullets periodically were fired into our apartment. Men with guns camped out on the ground floor of our building for years.

I often get asked why my family never left — or more pointedly, why my parents kept us there, dodging sniper fire on the way to school and back. The answer is this: We stayed because leaving is hard. Becoming refugees meant leaving our lives, our identity, and our dignity behind.

No one’s first instinct is to leave. Their first choice is usually to hold on to the comforting familiarity of home; when that becomes impossible, you leave for another safer area within the country. Then you leave for a neighboring country, so you can return as soon as possible or even keep an eye on your property while you’re away. Only when the walls are closing in and the horizon is total darkness do you give up and leave everything you have ever known behind, lock the door to your home, and walk away.

This is the choice Syrians are making today. In a country of 23 million people, more than 4 million are now refugees, 7.5 million are internally displaced, and 12 million are in need of assistance. The crisis has reached a point where, unless we end the war, the country will slowly empty itself — a hemorrhaging of its brightest and best, its young and old, escaping unspeakable horrors in the largest refugee migration since World War II, until all that will be left are the fighters. [Continue reading…]

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