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Opinion: Every refugee has a story no American can match for drama

Their odyssey helps us honor and grieve the sacrifices of American soldiers who made their pathways to freedom possible

The U.S. secretary of state meets with a refugee family in Afghanistan.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with an Afghan refugee family outside of Hangar 5 for evacuation operations at Ramstein Air Base Germany on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021.
Olivier Douliery, pool via AP

In the comfort of my middle-class existence, I have little sense of the indignities, humiliations and privations that similarly situated Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis (themselves well educated and from a similar material background) feel when they flee their respective nations for refuge in a safer place, be that Europe or the United States. But, my attention to such a question was aroused recently as I arrived at Washington’s Reagan National Airport to direct a BYU internship program for the next year.

As my taxi driver accelerated onto the Beltway, I caught a glimpse of the unfurled American flag flying at half-staff above the Pentagon. The late afternoon sun illuminated the building and the stark blue sky signaled the solemn and somber message communicated by that symbol. Thirteen soldiers had fallen in the line of duty, directly assisting a minority of Americans and a wave of Afghans — many from the same educational and economic background as myself — to find safe passage to friendly countries beyond the pale of the Taliban.

Displacement is the overarching, though underappreciated, drama playing out across the Middle East during the past few decades. American forces delivered justice to the Taliban in 2001, followed by nation-building efforts in the balance of the 20 years, ending Aug. 31.

Beginning in 2003, a war in Iraq further destabilized the region, sending hundreds of thousands to adjacent nations, including Syria, which, in the course of eight years, would face its own reckoning. Thereafter, in 2011, an indigenous Arab Spring unleashed the malevolent fury of Bashar Assad, who used air attacks, chemicals weapons and unspeakable torture methods to punish the earliest signs of defiance, as well as to sire a perpetual opposition in the form of the Islamic State.

The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University estimates that these conflicts, in addition to other conflicts associated with the global war on terror, have displaced approximately 6 million Afghans, 7 million Syrians and 9 million Iraqis.

While neighboring countries in the Middle East initially welcomed refugees from these conflicts, the scale of immigrants, as well as the complexity of their needs as time passed, prompted them to close their borders to additional exile seekers.

What began as a trickle of refugees seeking passage directly to Europe in the early 21st century built to a human tsunami in the late summer of 2015, as Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis, among others, flooded through Turkey onto the shores of Greek islands, then made their way overland to sanctuary in Germany and other welcoming European nations, from Italy to Sweden. In other words, migration meant not only getting to Europe, but through Europe, as well.

European journalists were best positioned to capture the lived experience of the immigrants. Somewhat serendipitously, Patrick Kingsley had been named by the United Kingdom’s Guardian as the paper’s international migration correspondent in the opening months of 2015, while Germany’s Der Spiegel dispatched Navid Kermani to Turkey to cover the unprecedented movement of people through the Balkans.

Kingsley’s “The New Odyssey: The Story of the Twenty-First Century Refugee Crisis” (Liveright, 2016) and Kermani’s essay-length “Upheaval: The Trek Through Europe (Polity, 2017), both told of the deplorable human rights conditions, including the depredations of the Taliban, that prompted Afghans, among others, to flee their homelands, suffer at the hands of swindling smugglers, unscrupulous merchants and anonymous angels-in-disguise, who pushed migrants through a continentwide gauntlet to new opportunities.

Indeed, as Kermani reported in the translation of his insightful observations, “every one of them have a story to tell that no Western European (or American) life can match for drama, suffering and violence: barrel bombs falling on their cities, crucified bodies on display for days ... every single refugee is a herald of it: they are the irruption of reality into our consciousness.”

Surprisingly, it wasn’t their foreignness that humanized them best, but their utter likeness to ourselves. “The hairstyles, the brand-name jeans and trainers, the sunglasses and earphones identify them as members of the global middle class; even their rucksacks are the same ones Westerners take when they go hiking.”

It was this inhumane odyssey that neither Homer’s hero, nor any of the hundred thousand odd Afghans who were fortunate enough to escape Kabul through the historic airlift in recent days, would have to endure that helped me best honor and grieve the sacrifice of American soldiers who gave their lives to ensure this collective passage to safety.

Evan Ward is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University​.