Believe it or not, I am incredibly picky when it comes to this blog. Little is ever good enough and that’s why the idea of guest posts really scares me. What if I approach a person but then I don’t like what they wrote or what if someone approaches me and I don’t like to what they write in general? How do I politely get out of it without hurting someone’s feelings and without having something on my blog that I don’t absolutely love? So far it has been simple because I have just stated to anyone who asked – sorry, no guest posts.
Until now. I have read quite a few stories by my fellow Travelette, journalist, world child and photographer deluxe Caroline Schmitt and eventually it clicked. I had to have her. Well, one of her stories that is. Most pieces of hers make me cry. Because not only are they beautifully written, but she often deals with current political issues, world affairs, and humanitarian crises. With that, she is never judgemental, but insightful, humorous, and always gives me something new to think about. It also makes me think that if more people were like her, we wouldn’t have many of the problems we’ve got.
While I haven’t been in Europe for the past two months and have been far removed, at least geographically, from the ongoing refugee crisis, little else has been more on my mind. So I asked Caroline for her two cents. How do you travel in the face of the current refugee crisis? How do you move countries and cross oceans for fun when others do it to survive?
Moving countries, crossing oceans.
When I stepped out of Cafe Internazionale on an almost unbearably hot evening in August, a little tipsy by white wine and by the dreams and ideas of the people that I had just met, a little boy sat on the streets and held a red rose into my face. I had only been in Beirut for a few days and didn’t know who these kids were. “They are refugees from Syria who are forced to sell roses. Don’t give them anything, they have to hand over everything to someone else and are left with nothing themselves,” my friend said. Over the days and weeks that followed, I kept walking past starving children in hip districts. It made me unspeakably uncomfortable, for they reminded me of all the things I had and of everything they no longer have, and perhaps will never have again. Instead of giving them coins, I started buying them manooshe, the little (and oh so delicious) Lebanese breakfast snack.
Refugees are a regular part of the population’s routine now, they make up more than one-quarter of the entire population. But they or their ancestors had been fleeing wars, destruction or poverty not long ago either. Adapting to a new setting and to new circumstances is in their DNA, that’s how locals explained it to me. It’s in our DNA as humans. Some 50 years ago, my home country Germany has been the biggest cause of a refugee stream of its own. So in a way, we’re all refugees even though we’re fleeing from different things for different reasons. There are no “two sides” or “two classes”, just humans. And we depend on each other.
When I left Lebanon a few life-changing weeks in 2014 later, I also left the refugee crisis behind, or so I thought. But then I didn’t. When I interrailed through Eastern Europe last summer, media coverage on the Balkan route had peaked for the first time. In Belgrade, Serbia, I fell off the train (quite literally) in the early morning hours and stumbled through a park full of homeless people who were sleeping, living and eating outside. Children, pregnant women, men – they were all refugees. Let me just say one thing, I don’t know if it was because I was terribly exhausted and hadn’t slept for two days, but that scene changed my worldview. Over the next few days in Macedonia, Slovenia and Poland and especially on trains, I stayed offline most of the time, so I didn’t read the news reports and I also didn’t know that things would get a hundred times worse in a couple of days.
What does all that have to do with travel? Well, if you don’t exclusively travel to five-star resorts or to off the beaten track routes in Australia, chances are you will encounter poverty, destruction, pain, death, or the aftermath of this. All that while you are busy living your privileged travelers’ life, posting the best parts of it on Instagram and turning the worst parts into hilarious anecdotes. This is unfair. Life is unfair. And I’m still struggling to understand how both worlds can exist simultaneously. It’s a question that keeps coming up and it’s a question that I won’t ever find a satisfying answer for. Back in Berlin, I started helping refugees while constantly being reminded that whatever I do, it’s never gonna be enough, there will still be people sleeping rough, there will still be people who could do with a bit of help, food, translation, and I will have to turn some of them down at some point.
I work in news, so I’ve obviously covered the refugee issue from a professional point of view. But the more I read, the more I write, the more I get to know, the more I struggle with finding easy, or any, solutions really. From a human perspective, this issue breaks my heart, it literally breaks it. But from an intellectual point of view, I know that Germany alone won’t be able to solve the world’s problems. From a human perspective, it makes me angry how there can be even one single person who is not just ignorant of the immense suffering, but who actively fights, burns down, or demonstrates against the very existence of other humans.
And my heart aches when I talk to friends who traveled to Damascus years ago, a place that’s now almost completely destroyed. My heart aches when journalists share pictures of the leftovers of Baghdad on Facebook, my heart aches when journalists remind me of the beauty of Beirut because I miss it so much every day: Its mindblowing landscapes, its people, its food, its joy of life, its resilience, its generosity in everything.
I think what it comes down to is cultivating compassion both on the road and at home. It’s wanting to find out connections, it’s battling with ourselves to dig deeper, to avoid settling for the easy answers and to endure and accept some of the painful question marks that just come with being a citizen of the world. It’s not turning a blind eye to the deeply troubling corners of it.
I hope that I’ll one day get to see a rebuilt Syria and a rebuilt Iraq. And I hope that it’s not just houses that will have been rebuilt, I hope that its people will have found home again. People like you and me, people who have been robbed of their innocence, people who love to travel, who love to eat well, who love to dance and kiss and be wild, people who care about their children, who want to change things, change hearts, change the world, people like you and me.
It may be a terribly naive and a terribly heartbreaking way of looking at the world, but it’s the only one I have.
All images by Caroline.