Our bags were already on board, along with my in-laws. Someone in a cheesy naval outfit had whisked them all away as soon as we arrived at the cruise terminal in Barcelona. I’d insisted on bringing my backpack, not a roller suitcase, because I’m a backpacker at heart, skeptical and resistant to this other side of travel. The luxury of cruises makes me a little queasy, but that day in October I had an entirely different and less travel-snobby reason for my queasiness: Much of our Mediterranean itinerary would follow the same route as the mass migration of Syrian refugees. Our floating hotel would slice effortlessly through the same choppy waters as inflatable smuggler rafts. We could even literally cross paths, two very different ships in the night.
Back home, in my non-traveling life, I work at a nonprofit that helps newly-resettled refugees rebuild their lives. Every day I see single mothers, from Burma or Congo or Iraq, being trained to open daycare businesses in their homes. Immigrants and refugees from around the world gather in our lobby to learn how to take the bus, old men from Nepal and Uzbekistan bustle into their citizenship class. So those people whose rafts my cruise ship might have passed were already on my mind.
I looked up at the behemoth — two city blocks of boat — and counted the sturdy close-topped lifeboats hanging off the side. Six, which probably meant six on the other side too, I thought. I wondered how many people each held. My husband touched my elbow and we walked up the gangway.
The world began paying attention to the refugee crisis about one month before the cruise with my in-laws. Of course, people started fleeing Syria long before, beating a worn path through Turkey to the coast, across the Mediterranean to Greece, then deeper into Europe. One month before I stood beside that cruise ship, craning my neck to count the lifeboats, newspapers around the world published a photo none of us can forget: the body of a toddler washed ashore in Bodrum, face down in the sand of a Turkish tourist town, a uniformed man standing over him, writing on his clipboard. I felt what I think most of the world felt: shock, horror and a deep, disturbing sadness that I didn’t have a word for. But I felt something else too, a rattling collision of my life with an unimaginable life — I’ve been to Bodrum, sunbathed on its idyllic Mediterranean beaches seven years ago, carried my backpack down the sidewalks where refugees now sleep on cardboard, awaiting word from their smuggler that it’s time to go.
An alarm sounded and a voice crackled over the intercom, announcing the emergency drill. All passengers were required to report to their muster station with their life vests. My husband and I moved slowly down the clogged hallway with our fellow passengers. I stopped listening to instructions when the muster station leader told us how many people each of the twelve lifeboats held: 150. The number ballooned in my mind and floated in the space between me and the muted cruise employee demonstrating the life vest’s safety whistle and beacon light.
The last thing I looked at on my phone before we left our hotel that morning was a “Humans of New York” profile of a Syrian woman. In the photo she’s holding her face in one hand. You can see her wedding ring. There’s an anonymous hand resting on her shoulder, trying to comfort her; the owner of the hand is cropped out. When she and her husband saw the boat that would take them from Turkey to Greece, they tried to back out, but there were no refunds and they’d already handed over all their money. They were crammed below deck — with 152 people — when the boat hit a rock in the middle of the night and began to fill with water. She and her husband were the last to make it out a window alive. He gave his life vest to a woman in the water; she lost his voice over the dark waves.
That night, after a multi-course dinner with plenty of wine, my husband and I walked tentatively around the ship as it rocked back and forth. The sea was rough. We stopped to look out a window. The water was endlessly black, except where it crashed against the window in frosty blue waves.
* * *
America is a little like a cruise ship. Far enough removed that we can choose to look the other way if we want, to say we’d rather not share our lifeboats. A week or so after the cruise, thousands of people across the country sent letters to their mayors and governors, saying they’d prefer that we shut our borders to Syrian refugees. These people made the news. What didn’t make the news were all the people who wanted to help.
The week of the photo that woke everyone up, the phones in my office rang all day. Our inboxes filled up with emails from people who wanted to know when Syrian refugees would arrive in our city and how they could help. One man wanted to make sandwiches. A middle-school girl sold hot chocolate and sent us $52.
Most of me was grateful for their compassion. But the cynical part of me was irritated at the sudden rush of concern. More than 1,000 refugees are resettled in our city every year, I wanted to tell people. Families who have escaped genocide, dictatorships and war. Children who have spent their entire lives in refugee camps. You didn’t want to help them?
And then I remembered the two young girls, with dark hair and dirty skin, begging for food in Athens. I had a box of lunch leftovers that I happily handed over, and as I walked away I found myself thinking: I hope those girls are Syrian refugees.
Why would I wish that on them? Why a specific category of desperation? Because that’s why I got a to-go box. Not because I was going to eat my gyro and fries later — I was on a cruise ship bursting with food — and not because I hoped to help just any person in need. I wanted to find a specific person in need, the type it was currently in vogue to help.
* * *
A few days after I got home from the cruise, I was talking to a guy I went to high school with at my niece’s first birthday party. We were having the usual “And what are you doing?” catch-up conversation.
“Huh,” he said, after I told him about my job. “So, Syria. You probably know about that. Like real quick, what’s up with Syria?”
“Well,” I said, “what do you want to know?” I’m not an expert, but I also don’t have a lot of patience for someone who wants to understand something as complex as the Syrian conflict “real quick.”
He shrugged, but I could guess what he wanted to know.
“It takes a little while for refugees to be resettled,” I told him. “Usually people have forgotten about the conflict by the time the refugees it created arrive.”
“Well,” he said, “I just hope we take the right ones, you know?”
I squinted at him, daring him to finish his thought.
“Like not the ones who want to blow us up and stuff.”
“I’m pretty sure they just want to be safe,” I said as politely as possible. Then I got up to get a cupcake.
This was before the Paris attacks, before a Syrian passport was found next to the body of one of the attackers. Before more than 25 U.S. governors vowed that Syrian refugees would not be allowed into their states (which they don’t have the authority to decide) and a mayor suggested that the internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor was a brilliant idea.
After the Paris attacks, we had another spike in attention at work, this time from TV news channels. And this time it was hard to tell if compassion or fear inspired their newfound interest in refugee resettlement: When would Syrian refugees arrive in our state? In which cities? How many? We arranged interviews with staff who are former refugees, and instead of answering questions about Syrians, they told their own stories.
Most of us are not versed in the refugee resettlement process. Why should we be? We are in the cruise ship, not the lifeboats, after all. Most of us don’t know that it takes an average of two years for a refugee to be scrutinized and processed, so those who do arrive in our cities soon will likely not be the ones trekking across Europe now. More likely they will have been in refugee camps since before the world decided they mattered.
But there’s something worse than only noticing refugees when they cross the borders of majority-white countries: assuming they are responsible for the very type of violence that they flee. There are not enough cupcakes to escape everyone who thinks like the guy at my niece’s birthday party. Our local paper, for example, made a video “responding” to the crisis. In big red letters over a montage of refugee footage, it posed the question: “Should we worry about an influx of Syrian refugees?” What about a more objective, journalistic question, like “Will we resettle Syrian refugees?” Or even one that errs on the side of humanity: “How can we welcome Syrian refugees?”
* * *
One afternoon about a year ago, a group of white supremacists gathered on the sidewalk in front of my office. They looked normal. They had a little boy with them. But they were holding a sign that said “‘DIVERSITY’ = WHITE GENOCIDE” in all-red caps. I was disgusted, but I wasn’t afraid.
If that happened now, however, I would be afraid. I see people boldly posting “I refuse to live in fear” on Facebook all the time. And I understand the sentiment, the desire to stand up to terrorism, but for the first time I’ve realized that I am afraid. Because of Paris and San Bernardino, but also because certain blonde pompadoured presidential hopefuls are given air time to propose banning Muslims from entering the country — and some people are actually listening. Parents tell us that their children are being teased and bullied in school, called terrorists because of their clothing and “Muslim-sounding” names.
Sometimes I cover lunch for the receptionist in our wide-open lobby. The week of the San Bernardino shooting, every time the front door opened, my heart took a tiny skip. If the person looks Iraqi or Somali or Burmese or Cuban, I smile in relief and ask how I can help. Some ask for a prayer rug, so they can pray before their English class. Some are meeting their job coach to go to an interview. But if the person is white, if they look like me, I find my breath quickening just slightly.
You see, I am not afraid of someone inspired by the Islamic State. I am afraid of someone who may think they are fighting terrorism by fighting refugees or those who help them — someone who has been listening too closely to certain politicians. I am not the only nervous one. A security guard was hired for our staff holiday party. He had a comb-over and a concerning lack of muscle tone.
Do refugees — from Syria and elsewhere — waiting to be granted refuge in America know that we also live in fear? Do they know that America is not immune from the violence and hatred they hope to escape?
Regardless of who we fear, or if we refuse to live in fear, we are not an impenetrable luxury hotel cruising through the world’s troubled waters. I did not see any rafts of refugees in the Mediterranean from the deck of the cruise ship, but I did see huge numbers of life jackets and inflatable lifeboats for sale on the street in Istanbul. I hope one day we won’t need so many, but right now we do. Because there is no cruise ship. There are only lifeboats.
* * *
Kaitlin Barker Davis is a travel addict and freelance writer and editor. Before her current job in development at a refugee assistance agency, she worked with the Women PeaceMakers Program at the University of San Diego, where she wrote the life story of a human rights activist from Pakistan. She has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Seattle Pacific University.
Janny Ji is a recent graduate from Rhode Island School of Design. Now she works as a New York based illustrator and graphic designer. Janny loves plants, animals and kids. She enjoys creating works that bring happiness to people. She is always open to fun and exciting projects. Follow her on Instagram @jannieeeji.