The Crossing: Hope and The Telling of Stories

The Crossing tells a remarkable story, one most people are not familiar with. The story humanizes the refugee condition and defines Morocco as an “in between space”, as it represents a unique geographic and socio-political context. Europe has come to represent a utopia, free from the suffering and poverty that drove many of the refugees from their homelands. Glorification of the western world is common as it grants those attempting to cross into Europe a sense of hope and purpose. Thus exists a duality of reality and dreams, acceptance and faith, for a better tomorrow. 

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The Crossing raises crucial social, economic, and political questions about what it means to be a citizen. What is a nation? What does being human mean and what are our rights? Are these being enforced? What and where is human dignity and how can we display it even in the most dire of circumstances? The complexity of these issues is boundless. Political power, economics, and law define some of these questions, but the real issue lies in exposing the atrocities of the Moroccan refugee condition, granting outsiders access into the crises to hopefully enact change.

Herein highlights the inherent need for anthropologists and social activists to uncover the untold stories of our human brethren and bring to light their suffering so we as a collective can learn, grow, and change our world for the better.

I was moved to tears reading the story of Beni and Dikembe and the horrid living conditions that brought them to Morocco. These men seek a new life for themselves and family, as their past is filled with suffering and devastation. The description of the poverty and misfortune that struck these men was beyond my comprehension. I transcended from my place in the world into their shoes for a brief moment. I was washed with grief and disgust and reminded of my privilege.

Beni promises that he and his brothers will “make it to Europe or we will die trying.” Tragic political conditions prevent most men who make it to the receiving center from achieving asylum. Ambiguous international laws on when refugees should be granted such status limits the possibilities for the majority of refugees. A successful crossing does not even mean a guaranteed asylum. Even worse, the illicit activity of the Guardia Civil and the common act of repatriation is atrocious. Often men, women, and children are left to die.

I was taken aback by the idea and pervasiveness of hope that is described throughout The Crossing, that men like Beni hold on to. In the face of such atrocity and suffering, hope is what keeps these men afloat. Heroes, or token success stories, are likened to biblical truth. If someone has crossed, it means it’s possible.

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It is grim to compare the Moroccan refugee crisis to the Holocaust, but human suffering and restrictions on freedom is something that can be linked across time, place, and culture. Seeing Spain from their forest camp, freedom so in reach yet so unattainable, I was reminded of this image, which reads ‘Work for Freedom’.

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I am deeply saddened by the impossibility and implausibility of achieving freedom through a crossing. I hope that there is another more civilized way for those seeking aid to be granted asylum.

Another fascinating aspect of Alexander’s The Crossing was the efficacy of its storytelling method. I believe it is important to analyze both the content and its presentation to understand how and why something can be shared effectively. A sympathetic not intrusive narration allows the story to tell itself. The use of Beni and Dikembe’s stories humanize the experience of the viewer.

I was reminded of the article That’s Enough About Ethnography! as it occurred to me that there was an important interplay between the engagement of participation and the detachment of observation of the anthropologist. Although present, it is clear a process and development of relationship between subject and observer has taken place and that the anthropologist is welcomed to tell their story. I now understand that in practice a simply ethnographic writing could be “devalued by its reduction to ‘data’” and that the goal of education could perhaps not be reached through this methodology (Ingold, 391).

Ultimately, there is an ethic responsibility of those who can, to share with the world the silent suffering of others. There are now, with the advent of new technology, effective measures of sharing untold stories. The first step to change is being aware of what’s going on in the world. So whose duty is it to expose what is going on? I think this matters tremendously and is the key to a better tomorrow for us all.

Double Crossed

When I was reading The Crossing the first quote really struck me:

The EU is ignoring international laws it helped found as it tries to turn Morocco into a ‘final destination’ for African migrants.”

I just thought of how contradictory this appears to us and wondered: Why do we assume that governments will enforce “human rights?”

A pair of flip flops, left behind by a refugee, lies on the ground in the Sahara Desert near the border of Algeria and Libya. Many sub-Saharan Africans who are caught crossing into one of the Spanish enclaves in Morocco are driven to the Sahara Desert near Morocco’s border with Algeria and dropped there without food or water. This is an illegal form of repatriation under international law. (Reuters)

After all, are these state systems really functioning any differently than they always have? Upon further inspection, situations like those depicted in The Crossing, where people are kept in impoverished living conditions and brutally mistreated, even against the apparent “law” have long been created and maintained by states internally and externally. Governments of various states have a history of suspending “human rights” when such concepts no longer serve the ruling interests. For example, suspension of habeas corpus in the US during wars. Some will argue about legal technicalities and special circumstances, but if even being released from “unlawful” arrest is not a right but merely a privilege then what good are the supposed guarantees of the other abstract rights to freedom of speech, press, assembly, etc… in a prison cell or under threat of being thrown in one?

Furthermore, countries decide who and how many people to admit based on their need to maintain social control and unemployment margins as well as the needs and interests with businesses which desire consumers and abundant cheap labor. Thus we can see that it is both the state and private property system, which have an interest in maintaining such conditions and controlling the movement of people across borders. The histories of colonialism and neocolonialism are very pertinent here as well, as means that increased power for both states and capitalists as well as the church—western organized religious institutions. Not to mention sexism, racism and white supremacy, which both reciprocally reinforce the other systems and act as their own forces.

So what can we do? I think one necessary step is to accurately view the nature of the problem, which means looking at how domination is created and perpetuated through multiple interlocking systems which must all be addressed simultaneously if it is to be undone and replaced with egalitarian relations. The kinds of analyses put forth by intersectional feminists, anarchists and libertarian socialists seem quite perspicacious in this regard.

Rebel against false borders wherever you find them! After all, do we not all tend to reinforce these kinds of borders every day with our adherence to them, from countries to micro-interactions with people and even in our own minds? Think of these borders as being key to the disconnect between how things could and should be and how they are, if you like. If people were free to go wherever they liked, not in an abstract sense of right, but in the sense of real possibility, then the needs of all would become everyone’s concern and site of action.

Keeping Hope: Reaction to “The Crossing”

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It takes little effort to search the world and find suffering. It presents itself in plain sight and in bold fonts on the front pages of newspapers and magazines across the world and in flashes across t.v. screens nightly. Images of war-torn towns, footage of grotesque police misconduct, and symbols of extreme malnutrition and illness riddle our collective lines of sight daily, even for those of us who live far from and free of the worlds’ most gratuitous forms of suffering.

But in hidden pockets of the hills in Northern Morocco, African refugees (or legally, migrants until they are granted their desired recognized status of “refugee”) suffer in places far beyond the gaze and protection of the consciences of Western populations and laws. Congregated in hopes of overwhelming the force of the militarized Spanish guard that polices the twenty-foot fences that stand between migrants in Morocco and potential asylum within the European Union with sheer volume, these refugees from throughout Africa experience an unintelligible and unrecognized suffering. It is viscerally more than just the burden of homelessness, fear of physical and emotional violence, and heightened risks of illness, starvation, and death. Beyond that, what remains most striking about the suffering experienced in the enclaves of refugees hoping to cross the Moroccan border is its cohabitation with hope and vibrant expressions of human spirit – how in sites of absolute despair and loss, it is hope (and maybe hope alone) that fuels groups of people to band together and invest in a shared dream of someone, anyone, finding their way to something better.

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Refugees Climb Fence to Spain (thestar.com)

When we first spoke in class about the refugee crossings in Morocco, I was struck by the sparseness of cause for hope. When reading “The Crossing,” the reality of that hopelessness became more apparent. Not only do refugees face the ubiquitous threat of violence, discrimination, and physical illness and exhaustion, they also face the foreclosure of all imaginable possibilities for situational improvement. Incapable of finding work or shelter within Morocco, and unable to either return home or move forwards in the absence of the financial means to do so, these refugees inhabit a state that appears hardly transitory at all. Morocco, a supposed sight of crossing, seems more than anything to be an irrefutable dead end.

Yet with little hope for finding legal protection under any domestic or international code of law, a source of compassionate aid from any local or international body, or just a bout of honest luck from the universe, it is hope that somehow still seems to eclipse the overwhelmingly visible suffering of these refugees to propel a shared dream of crossing into somewhere “better.”  What I find most remarkable about these young boys who constitute Morocco’s migrant population is not the weight of the aggregate pain they have experienced, but the resilience of their belief in something better. How, when such little evidence exists that better things will come, is it that people who have nothing to ground their hope in still summon the strength to believe there is an end to their pain. Or perhaps more pressingly, what happens if that hope is lost? In the absence of material aid or sustenance, hope appears to be the most valuable possession these boys have. For people who have lost their communities, families, livelihoods, identities, and sense of security, it is morale – not food or shelter – that seems most vital to survival.

 

The Crossing – Reaction

Honestly the quote that began this article truly struck me. “ In the Congo you grow up thinking about escape. When I was little, no one asked me what I wanted to become. They asked me where I wanted to go.” Can you imagine being 5, 6, 7 years old and having your friends and family asking you where you wanted to go? I was only ever asked “So Mikaila, what do YOU want to be when you grow up?” and I would respond eagerly with, “I want to be a veterinarian and open up my own animal shelter, Grandma!”

Sometimes it’s just absolutely crazy how disconnected we are from the rest of the world, let alone our own world. It’s crazy that we don’t know about some of these life-altering events that take place right next to us. It’s crazy how much of a bubble we allow ourselves to live in – and not only live in but be content with living in. This is not how it’s supposed to be, this is not how life is supposed to work. We weren’t put on this planet to go in one direction for our entire life and individualize the world that we live in to the extent that we have become so naïve about the world that we actually live in.

Upon some of the boys showing pictures of their “heroes” Dr. Alexander writes, “One wears the uniform of his “good job,” where he works as a prep cook in an overcrowded kitchen. Another is standing beside a cement mixer on a dusty construction site. “They are living our dream,” I hear one boy say over my shoulder.” Is this not unimaginable? The fact that most people in the U.S. would look at these men in Europe and accredit their situation as poor or lower class, and there are boys who consider these men their heroes, living the dream of many, is absolutely absurd to me. Why do we have such extravagant, outrageous definitions of success and life in general? This is one of the many questions of the world that just blows my mind. The fact that the majority will define success monetarily or materialistically is something that I’ve been struggling with more and more. There are these men in the world who just want to cross over into a better life and would be extremely content and even ecstatic about a job as a cement worker and we are concerned about what new sports car we’re going to buy next? I simply cannot wrap my head around this idea.

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Picture taken from Dr. Alexander’s article “The Crossing”

I’m sorry – but is this picture real? The contrast in this image is so shocking but also something I’m vaguely familiar with. You have a group of men – beaten, bruised, and painfully abused emotionally and physically, climbing over a razor-wire fence as the backdrop to an image of a gorgeously groomed and bright green golf course, where two individuals are fully dressed, playing a game of golf. It’s actually unbelievable. When I was in India this past summer I experienced a very similar situation. My class was taking a field trip to the Dalai Lama’s temple, but in order to reach it you had to walk this mile-long path along the mountains.

Of course we were all ecstatic to be visiting the temple and everyone was laughing and smiling until something stopped us dead in our tracks. I’m not sure if you can tell from this picture but impoverished families lined the path we had to walk. Naked children held babies in their arms and all at once they came to us asking for money. They poked us with their fingers as they pleaded, “Ma’am money, money please, money hungry, ma’am money.” But our professor told us that we weren’t allowed to give them anything because if we gave to one we would have to give to all and it would end up turning into an aggressive situation.

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View of Himalayan mountains from path to Dalai Lama’s Temple

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View of the families that lined the path to the Dalai Lama’s Temple

So we walked. We walked with our hands around our bags and ignored these children for an entire mile. I walked away from these kids that I desperately wanted to help. I bring up this example because on this path to the Dalai Lama’s temple is the backdrop of the most incredible view I’ve ever seen, the Himalayan mountains, and one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, the Dalai Lama’s temple, alongside the most crippling poverty I’ve ever witnessed.

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Front view of the Dalai Lama’s Temple

It’s just so hard to wrap my head around these things; it makes me feel so ignorant and naïve about my world – it also makes me feel so confused. It’s absolutely crazy to think that stuff like this happens every single day; it’s even crazier to think that not enough people care to do anything about it…