Last time I talked to my grandmother was on New Year’s eve. I called on Skype from Berlin, she was not feeling too well but recovering and extremely chatty. My grandmother saw the world through her own set of Soviet-tinted glasses, peppered with bad-quality TV propaganda and wartime childhood. She’d watched TV a lot, but those couple of months she was too ill to focus on anything other than medication and sleep. Perhaps the fact that she did not watch TV for so long played a role in how differently our last conversation played out.
I would normally skip many details of my travels (especially the African part) when talking to my grandmother. From what she watched on TV, the world out there was a dangerous place, filled with ill-minded people, blood-thirsty beasts and natural disasters. She would phone my mum at random hours of the day to ask her to warn me against another terrible thing that might happen in this or that country.
But that time, on a call from Berlin, I decided to tell her everything about my latest movements, and gave her a detailed account of my shocking trip through southeastern Turkey, and the refugee camps I saw, the smokes of Kobani rising a few miles away with war planes whizzing by and tanks buzzing up and down the hills.
‘Those people, you know, they live in containers and tents, in makeshift shelters,’ I was telling her. ’They have food provided by all those aid organisations, but with all the corruption, bureaucracy and recklessness, they often face lack of medical assistance and ill treatment on religious and ethnic grounds. They escaped the war alright, but looking at all those children in the camps I cannot help but thinking that a whole generation might grow up like this, with no stable home, no education, no legal status in the country that shelters them. Turkey is doing a colossal job accepting all these people, but most of them have no idea what future will bring, if there is an end to this misery’.
‘I remember this,’ grandma suddenly replied. ‘My mother and I had to flee from our village when the Germans were advancing. My father was in the army and we stood no chance if we stayed behind. We shared a tiny basement flat with another family, it smelt of mould so badly. I learned how to do all the house chores when I was a child, because I had nothing else to do.’
It was the first time when my talks about foreign countries were not met with Oh! and Ah!, but rather with a story. Not simply a story, but part of my own history.
‘I learned how to read and write very early, from our neighbour’s son, he was several years older and already went to school while I didn’t,’ my grandma kept telling. ‘It was hard, I think, living in that basement while the war was still going on. But I was little and did not really have a clue. My mum was the one who worried for both of us, and then we got the news that father was killed…’
They survived the war and eventually moved out of the stinky basement. My grandma went to visit her village just once after that, when she was in her 20s. The village had been destroyed during the war, of course, but then again, it was just a small village of a few dozen houses. By the time my grandmother revisited it, new buildings started to spring here and there, and the life in the village resumed, although not many original families returned to live in their former home.
Ahmed (name changed) is certain that money can fix anything in this world. I am of a different opinion. When four years ago Ahmed had to undertake a long journey from his native Afghanistan to the welcoming Scandinavia, he was alone, 16 years old, and with a bunch of cash donated by his relatives from all over the globe: an uncle across the Atlantic, a cousin in Germany, another one in Australia. Moving by buses and taxis, crossing borders with professional smugglers, he made it all the way to Istanbul, and then over the sea to Athens, where he met an Iranian man in a bar and bought from him a fake passport which allowed him to fly to Sweden. In Malmö, he finally went to the immigration office and presented his case. Coming from one of the least peaceful parts of Afghanistan where tribal conflicts prevail, Ahmed thought his chances of getting asylum were quite good, and then he’d be able to bring his family along.
9 more months in the camp for asylum seekers – and finally he was relocated to the north of the country, granted a legal status and presented with several job opportunities. Four years later, Ahmed speaks Swedish like a pro, his two sisters are studying at the local university and help him take care of their ageing mother.
In January 2015, Ahmed and his mother are driving from Arlanda airport up north to Umeâ, just after their return from a trip to Afghanistan. They pick up a hitchhiker who is freezing on the road in Gävle. That hitchhiker is me (of course, because all my stories are about me!).
Ahmed is telling me that what I am doing is very risky, meaning hitchhiking in the middle of winter, alone. ‘How are you not afraid of living like this? You have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow!’ Well, I reply, there are always nice people out there to pick me up and not let me freeze my arse on the highway. ’Certainly,’ he says. ‘But maybe just 2%, in this country. The other 98% are too afraid to stop for a stranger.’
Ahmed had enough money to bribe his way through several international borders and get to Europe from Afghanistan. He did not come across too many acts of random kindness on the way, and it was always the money that solved his problems. A bribe to one smuggler, a bribe to another, a load of cash to the guy with fake passports. Ahmed’s journey, in hindsight, went incredibly smoothly if you compare it to some of the stories of refugees and asylum seekers that we see on the news lately.
For people like him, my choice of living a semi-nomadic life is hard to understand, the choice of not knowing where this road will bring me tomorrow. I was born privileged enough to make this choice.
A few months ago I was convinced that most people in Europe live with their head up their arse and prefer to stay sheltered from the draught of war that blows from the Middle East and Africa. But the more I talked to people around me about refugees and asylum seekers, the more I researched web-based and on-site initiatives to welcome those who are fleeing war and persecution, the stronger I felt that, unconsciously, many of us who are blessed to be born in a safe harbour, make some sort of mental connection with those Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis, Eritreans who are forced out of their homes.
Our historical memory is ridiculously short. Humanity has an attention span of a stoner (short-term 5-second memory): just two generations ago, our grandparents were growing in times of war, with bombs flying over their houses and families going missing. Now that this exact thing is happening just next door to Europe, we largely seem to not identify ourselves with the so-called refugee crisis.
I called my grandmother on New Year’s eve from Berlin, the city that in 1940 was a few years away from being freed from the Nazis, when my grandmother’s family was forced to move out of their village to a smelly Soviet basement, as refugees. I want to hope that 70 years in the future, a nameless traveller will be listening to the evening city noise somewhere in Damascus, or Sana’a, or Bangui, and they will take out their communication device (whatever that thing will look like in our futuristic world) and call their grandmother, once a refugee, to tell her that everything’s alright and life goes on.