This Painting Humanizes The Refugee Crisis

Weeping eyes, a triangular nose and a wailing mouth abstracted in a greenish face greet me every morning.

Men's CHRISTMAS Desgin Long Sleeve T-ShirtAn unaccompanied Vietnamese teenage refugee painted the image “Remembering Mother” in 1983. He had been rescued at sea, one of many children, mainly boys, who fled alone or had been sent away from their homeland by parents fearful for their future. At the time, he was in Galang, a refugee camp in Indonesia established to house the surge of boat people escaping Vietnam waiting for resettlement in the United States or elsewhere.

My husband was the Singapore-based US Refugee Coordinator, overseeing America’s part in resettlement programs both there and in Indonesia. I accompanied him occasionally on his monthly visits to Galang. On one of those visits, we saw an exhibit of young refugees’ art.

Struck by “Remembering Mother’s” strength and artistic vision, I told the exhibit coordinator how good I thought that particular painting was. Alas, I didn’t meet the artist to congratulate him. As we were leaving, the coordinator presented me the painting. Since then, it has lived on my office wall. The title remains puzzling: Is the son remembering his mother? Or has he shown his mother remembering him? No doubt, in real-life, both.

The pain in the weeping eyes has again become all too palpable.

Perhaps the starkest trigger was the image of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old in a red shirt and blue shorts, flopped in lapping water on the beach in Turkey. He, a sibling and his mother were among those drowned in early September when the boat they were crammed into sank escaping from Syria.

Flight from Syria isn’t recent. Since the increasingly brutal civil war began in 2011, camps have sprouted on the borders of Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraqi Kurdistan, overflowing as Syrians sought refuge with only what they could carry.

This month, with a worsening situation in Syria and elsewhere image of fleeing refugees piles upon image, giving reality and human dimensions to the burgeoning crisis.

Large black dinghies, overfull with desperate individuals from as far afield as Afghanistan or Nigeria, rising and falling on the rough Mediterranean, some making it to land, some rescued at sea, some sinking and washed ashore. Many had sold everything and worked for days to earn funds to pay a smuggler so they could attempt the risk,

Men, women and children in their thousands clambering through rolls of razor wire along international borders in Europe; a mother thrusting her toddler through a breach to reaching hands before scrambling through herself.

Hungarian railway stations teeming with crowds waiting for hours without access to nourishment before trains ultimately arrived to take them to the safety of Germany.

An endless expanse of sand-brown tents in a refugee camp in Jordan, lacking food and water because international funds to provide supplies have run short.

Every day, new stories, new images, new heartaches.

Meanwhile, few in this country are seeing images from across the Pacific where a smaller flood of Rohinga refugees (Muslims from near the border with Bangladesh being persecuted by Burmese Buddhists) attempts to escape Myanmar. Some are trafficked into Thailand and Malaysia. Others bolt by ship only to be abandoned by the smugglers who charge untold sums to get them out of the country, leaving them afloat without liquid or sustenance. The Indonesians and Malaysians have set up temporary camps for rescued survivors but both governments say that is for a limited time.

Likewise, on our southern border, the numbers of unaccompanied children and mothers with youngsters apprehended are down and, unlike last summer’s hateful images, paid little media attention. But they continue to come, walking, riding trains, being fleeced by coyotes who promise safe passage they do not always provide, taking flight from gang violence and poverty in Central America.

Cumulatively, these mass migrations, these humanitarian crises are the greatest since the end of World War II, according to press reports. You must be my age and seen pictures or actually experienced it to have any memory of that, particularly because large numbers of us, although not all, have long been safely, comfortably cocooned between two oceans.

And yet.

Americans, as individuals and as a nation of immigrants and refugees, have — or should have — born-in-the-bone understanding of leaving far lands, homes, families and crossing oceans under threat of persecution or starvation ourselves or of our ancestors doing so; or, worse yet, of being captured and moved here forcibly.

My ancestors, for instance, left kith and kin and risked sailing the Atlantic to help establish Virginia — so far back that names are lost, particular struggles forgotten. My husband’s British-born grandfather came from Canada as a three-year-old. Before England, several generations earlier the family had left Ireland. One of our grandson’s great grandmothers left the Pale arriving alone in Ellis Island as a teenager, part of the great European migration at the turn of the 20th century. One daughter-in-law’s great grandparents migrated from Finland. The other daughter-in-law halis from New Zealand. A niece-in-law is sansi (third-generation Japanese ancestry).

Our family’s is just one of the innumerable migration stories (and by comparison, a relatively tame, homogeneous one) that weave the history of this country. Even our native people, those here to greet the rest of us, originally walked to this continent.

In a way, then, as we see these daily images of people leaving home behind, seeking security, risking their children, and themselves, in a boat because the water is safer than the land, we are seeing ourselves in other guises. Or so it seems to me.

But how to respond?

Compassion for pain, loss and uprootedness? Recognition that the roiling mass is actually individuals with disrupted peaceful lives, who love as we do, even if we do not know their names or unique stories? Donations to organizations that provide aid? Yes to all that.

While the inundation of people is arriving in Europe, it is not entirely a European problem. Our president and secretary of state have announced that by 2017, the United States will be prepared to receive at least 100,000 refugees. To put that number in perspective, in the early ’80s when my husband was a refugee coordinator, this country accepted roughly 120,000 Indochinese refugees annually, and that exodus was smaller.

Our granddaughter’s college and our daughter’s synagogue have already begun plans to welcome Syrian families into their care. No doubt, as churches and communities across the country welcomed Vietnamese boat people and helped them get established, others are also planning to again.

What troubles me as much as the humanitarian crisis itself, however, is the hateful tone in the public discussion in this country about immigration more broadly. And not just from politicians, although the candidates’ fulminations are disturbing, particularly coming from those whose parents or grandparents were refugees and migrants.

The issue isn’t legal or illegal, or even building walls and strengthening borders, even though that is how it is being framed. Solutions other than deportation are feasible if there is a will to find them. The Senate sent a bi-partisan bill to the House several years ago. It could be sent again. We should build on our own migratory history with respectful generosity not defensive “nativism.”

Beyond that, however, when I agreed with a Facebook post about increasing the number of refugees this country should take, someone responded that with so many homeless here already, we should take care of them and our other poor instead. As a nation, we can and should do both. This is not a matter of either/or, it is both/and.

Which brings me back, in a way, to “Remembering Mother.” Just as I never knew the artist’s name, I can only assume he was on one of the refugee flights we waved off to the United States at Singapore’s airport. I often look at his painting and wonder.

By now, his American children would be out in the world and working. And perhaps he has even taken them back to visit the mother he remembered with giant tears.

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