Patrick Kingsley, The New Odyssey: The Story of the Twenty-First Century Refugee Crisis
New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017
Reviewed by Dale Pauls
Sometimes a book comes along that indelibly captures one of the great issues of our time. So it is with Patrick Kingsley’s The New Odyssey. Kingsley is the inaugural migration correspondent for the cutting-edge British newspaper, The Guardian. As he writes he consciously conjures up the ghost of Virgil creating his Aeneid. No, it’s not epic poetry, but it is a heartfelt, soulful account of the epic journey of millions of refugees today crossing the same wine-dark sea.
In this brilliantly constructed book, Kingsley covers the 2012 – 2015 odyssey of a former Syrian civil servant, Hashem al-Souki, as he and his family flee Assad’s dystopian Syria, find themselves adrift in Egypt (as one regime replaces another), and end up at the cold mercy of mercenary smugglers with the vast Mediterranean seemingly their only escape from the chaotic Middle East. Hashem, facing such danger, must leave his wife and three young sons behind, risk drowning himself at sea on boats beyond overcrowded, and then heroically limp his way across Europe in hope against all odds of some kind of asylum and family reunification in Sweden. Sweden? Well, yes, in 2015 Sweden is one of the few humanitarian nations left in Europe or for that matter in the world. But on his unlikely arrival, a right-wing opposition party forces the government to reconsider its commitments to refugees. And once again all bets are off.
Hashem’s story is riveting. But that’s half the book. In fact, it’s every other chapter. In the chapters in between, Kingsley broadens our perspective to see the plight of refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, the Sudan, West Africa, northern Nigeria and the darkly despotic little nation of Eritrea. We follow them as paid smugglers extort, exploit, and maybe escort them across the deadly Sahara or as they flee the Taliban on foot and then sometimes walk across the deserts, mountains, and plains of Iran and then Turkey until they find inflatables to risk it all again in dark night passage to some Greek isle. (Who can forget the iconic image of Alan Kurdi’s little body washed up on a Turkish shore?) And then the European travails begin, strangers on foot, often penniless, their fate entrusted to strangers, at constant risk from border guards and bandits, desperately seeking safety, wives often pregnant, toddlers on their father’s shoulders, even grandparents in wheel chairs. And you realize something. You realize none of these people would be out there if they knew of any other options left for survival.
Most readers will have no idea how truly dreadful life is in so many places on our little planet. Take Eritrea on the Horn of Africa whose monstrous president, Isaias Afwerki, has consigned most of his nation to serfdom for life. In fact, the main reasons for the refugee crisis are the wars and dictators who drive people from their homes. And those who continue to arm the warring factions in these troubled lands are complicit; they fuel wars that left to their own would have come to a natural end some time ago. Nowhere is this more evident than in Syria.
And always for these refugees there are these complex life-and-death choices for which they’re completely unprepared. How does it feel to be Hashem risking it all every day on uncertain morsels of information, on rumor and gossip, never really knowing whether the decisions he is making are right – always knowing that with his next move he might just blow it all?
But what sticks most is that the refugees will keep coming. Their desperation will prove stronger than our momentary feelings of ill ease and anxiety. Build a wall. They’ll find another crossing. In days. And one day we may see that the only real way to keep them out is to mow them down but then of course it will be our own humanity we have lost.
Some of the screams are in Arabic, some not. There are people from across Africa here, others from across the Middle East. There are Palestinians, Sudanese and Somalian. And Syrian, like Hashem. They want to get to northern Europe: Sweden, Germany or anywhere that offers them a better future than their collapsed homelands. For that distant hope they are risking this boat trip to the Italian coast. All being well, they should reach Italy in five or six days. But, for now, Hashem doesn’t know if he’ll survive the night. Or if anyone will.
An hour passes. They reach a second boat, a bigger one, and then a third, bigger still. At each new vessel, the smugglers toss them over the side like bags of potatoes. Now they have a bit more space, but they’re soaked. They had to wade through the waves to get to the dinghy, and the second boat was full of water. Their clothes drenched, they shiver. And they retch. The person squeezed to his left pukes all over Hashem. Then Hashem pays the favor forward, spewing all over the person to his right. He looks up, and realizes everyone’s at it; everyone’s clothes are caked in other people’s vomit. Each has paid more than $2000 to spew over fellow refugees. (3-4, how the book begins)
Human traffickers are simply vectors of the contempt which exists at the two poles of the asylum seeker’s journey; they take their cue from the attitudes of warlords and dictators on the one hand, and on the other, of wealthy states whose citizens have learned to think of generosity as a vice. (72)
This man’s own story is instructive of why people trust the sea more than the lands they’re coming from. He’s a former army officer from Syria who fled to Egypt in the early days of the 2011 uprising, after he refused to kill unarmed protesters. Because of this, he’s still a wanted man; assassins tried to kill him in Cairo not long after he arrived. Back at home, the Syrian state won’t give his mother the cancer treatment she needs – all because he’s her son. As a result, he’s asked to be identified here only by the nickname of Abu Jana, which means “Jana’s dad”. .. Abu Jana is now at risk of being deported to his death. “Why do we keep going by sea?” Abu Jana asks me. “Because we trust God’s mercy more than the mercy of people here.” (127-128)
Tibor Varga [a priest in northern Serbia who helps refugees] has an interesting take on this irony. … Europe, he says, is frightened that an influx of foreigners will erode European values. But what values will there be to uphold if we abandon our duty to protect those less fortunate than ourselves? (230)
When Kingsley turns to solutions to this crisis, he of course invites debate. Though on this he’s right: It will take coordinated trans-national approaches. The world cannot leave this to Germany and Sweden.
So if the bookshelf is a preacher’s, this book belongs. Or on the night table of anyone who seeks to follow Jesus today. Thus we have made the world. In the words of the British-Somali poet, Warsan Shire (cited by Kingsley)
You have to understand,
That no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land. (“Home”)
The human story is the story of movement. And as climate change intensifies, millions more, ever more desperate, will move. The sooner we realize the inevitable, the sooner we can organize to save. This is the issue of our times. And how our hearts and minds respond to this – do they open or close? – determines not only the fate of millions but our own fate as well. To spare ourselves this “inconvenience,” to keep our lives tidy, we’ll do the darndest, darkest things ourselves. And maybe lose our souls.