I once spent about 40 hours at an airport. It was in Buenos Aires in 2008 and there was some strike going on, the details of which are still not clear to me and were probably never fully clear to anyone. I was able to check in and actually made it to the boarding area, only to spend a day and a half there with no information about my flight until about half an hour before the plane finally took off.
It was not a pleasant experience. To start with, my sailing crew was waiting for me in Ushuaia to embark on our once-in-a-lifetime adventure into Antarctica and I had no idea when I would be able to join them and how much longer they could wait for me before jeopardizing the whole trip. Although I was lucky enough to get stuck at an airport where I spoke the local language, I was still unable to get any useful information. So, I could do nothing but wait and hope, my fears growing by every clueless hour that passed by. There was suddenly a palpable chance that, despite all the hard work I put in preparing and the significant chunk of my savings I dedicated for this journey, I could lose it all with no fault on my part whatsoever. I was starting to freak out and blame the destiny for having it in for me.
There were practical issues, as well. Buenos Aires tends to get rather hot in midsummer and I was wearing only a T-shirt. However, keeping the airport temperature just above the freezing point doesn’t seem to be endemic to North America only, meaning that I was in this ridiculous situation of shivering in the middle of the 40°C city all while having seven layers of clothes in my bag that was probably less than hundred meters away from me. There was no food, but some crisps from the vending machines and we didn’t get a sandwich until the next morning. There was a restaurant in another wing of the airport, but as we never knew when we would take off, it was a risky proposition to go away for an hour. We outnumbered the chairs, so I spent the night crumbled on the floor. Some tried to sleep seated. Some walked around. One guy slept in the X-ray machine.
The airport was slowly evolving from a place of a simple chaos to one of an organized riot. The would-be passengers first got into smaller groups and protested loudly, although there was no one around who would hear them. Then they huddled, tore off the garbage bins from their mounts and used them as drums as they marched through the airport and chanted for their rights, demanding to be heard and assisted at once. Next they started jumping over the abandoned airlines counters, raiding them for whatever they could find, breaking keyboards over their knees or using the telephones to call their family and friends. When the airport spokesperson finally addressed the assembled masses, his unsatisfactory answers were rewarded with a coke can thrown at his head. He bled and fled, and there would be no more visits until I flew out.
All around the airport there were people with lots of questions and no answers. Some had built camp-like structures, a trolley to the left, suitcases to the right, blankets on the floor and stretched over the sides, sweatshirts instead of pillows. There were by far too many people for what the airport buildings were designed for. Some were already starting their third day and have had more than enough of everything and everybody. Some held no currency and were dependent on good will of others to buy water bottles. Those with little kids were hit the worst. They ran out of diapers or baby food, or simply out of the ways to keep their kids from crying. They were supposed to spend only an hour at the airport, yet life, unpredictable as it is, had them stranded and they didn’t know when they would return to the normalcy of their lives, how much more of these sufferings were they supposed to endure.
While I did make it to Ushuaia in time to embark, I still remember this. I am sure that the families with children who spent two nights at the airport with little assistance, not only remember this, but might consider it as one of the more unpleasant experiences of their lives. And frankly, so would most of you. You can relate to their plight, you can imagine yourselves in the similar situation and think of all the problems something like this would cause you. You can understand. If someone tells you a story like this you will nod sympathetically and feel like they got a bad break. Without an exception.
And yet, when you see a similar picture of refugees gathered on a train station, you are divided. And the reason is simple – you cannot relate to it.
Getting stuck at an airport for a day or two is something that could happen to you. Or your brother. Or your neighbor. The danger of missing the next flight, the doctor’s appointment or your grandson’s wedding is palpably real, even if its cost is nothing compared to what refugees have to go through every single day. But you are no more able to fathom what it’s like to have nothing in life but memories and fear than you are to understand what goes into running a marathon in two hours. You know that the neighbor who jogs four times in a week is in great shape. You can recognize the fact that he is much fitter than you, but you also know that if you try hard you can reach that level. But an elite marathon runner? That’s just not the part of your world and you know you will never be one, so why bother thinking about it.
The same is with being a refugee. Yes, it must be tough on them, but hey, it’s another world. These are not the things you need to worry about, because the things like this don’t happen to people like you, right? But only, they do.
I could have told you another story instead of the airport one. I, too, thought that such stories would never be mine to tell, that I would never wake up to find that the world just broke. I was wrong. I could have told you a story of smoke, of bombs, of hunger, of destruction, of pain, of loss, of fear, of desperation, of burnt flesh and of frozen hearts. I could have told you a story of moments in life where nothing, absolutely nothing would ever be the same again. I could have told you a story that would have made you cringe, but then it would have been for naught, because you wouldn’t have related to it. Some stories you have to live through to understand.
But you can relate to what I and the others felt at that airport. And perhaps, just perhaps, you can take it from there and build on it. Imagine that it happened to you. Then imagine that it wasn’t for two days, but for a whole week. Then, for a month. Imagine that while you were there you received a phone call telling you your car had been stolen while you were on a vacation. Imagine you slipped and broke your hand, and there was no doctor at the airport and they wouldn’t let you out to seek one. Or at least you think that is what they were telling you, because you don’t speak a single word of Spanish. Then you receive another phone call telling you that your house burnt to the ground and that there is no insurance policy. Then your child gets sick. We can do this for a long time and you would still be in a much better position than the refugee you see on the news.
If you can, build on it and try to understand how it would be if you were told that there would be no returning home from that airport, ever. If what and who you had with you was all you would take into a new and uncertain life, regardless of how much you were able to build in your old one up to that point. Imagine everybody looking at you and conflating your tragedy with your person, thinking that you must have done something wrong, because these things just don’t happen to normal people. Them snickering that you can’t be that poor off, because, hell, you have a cell phone.
Perhaps it will change the way you look at the refugees just a bit. Perhaps it won’t. But you should really try to imagine it. You owe them that much. And you owe yourself that much, because these things happen to people like you, too. Trust me. So, if nothing else, think about it, then open your well stocked fridge, pop a beer and drink one celebrating the life and the fact that you are not a refugee.