I have been back in the United States for approximately nine hours now, and I hate it. I remember walking under the sign before customs in Newark International Airport that proudly stated “Welcome to The United States of America.” I longed to be back in Greece, Switzerland, and London.
There’s an element of reverse culture shock that I tend to experience when returning from international mission and service trips. I have a disdain for the American way of life and how entitled we are as a society. I become angry and abhorrent about the way we Americans act. I haven’t experienced that this time.
Instead, my mind has been plagued with a question since I arrived in Greece, and it is only ever more present in my mind since returning home. What if the roles were reversed? What would it look like if Americans were the refugees and the thousands of Africans, Syrians, and other refugees had the entitlements and relatively safe lives?
I’ve attempted to wrap my head around this question and find an answer sufficient enough for the American conscience. I have two schools of thought when responding to it.
The first is that the situation may look similar to that of the current crisis. The wealthy, elite people of America would have enough money to escape the confines of the country and seek asylum somewhere else just as the wealthy people of the countries represented in the camp did. Some families may only be able to send one or two members to represent their family and make a better way.
This means that much of the poorer classes of America would not be able to flee. The expenses of asylum are so great that many people aren’t able to remove themselves from harms way. Thousands of people remain trapped in dangerous countries with no escape in sight simply because they can’t afford it. The same would ring true in America should the roles be reversed. The majority of working, low-middle class Americans would not be able to flee.
The second path my mind goes when thinking about this question resides in the reaction and response. I personally believe the reaction from Americans to the situation would look very different. Yes, many refugees currently in the situation complained about the camp conditions and the lengthy asylum process. Yes, they complained about the food and the rules in camp. I think anyone would.
However, Americans have different life experiences and comforts from those currently in the crisis. We have a different way of life than those living in Aleppo, Syria or Kinshasa, DRC. I wish that everyone could experience life in a refugee camp. I wish that we could all gain the insight into daily life in a refugee camp. Will— my roommate in Greece — posed the idea that volunteers and workers in the refugee camps should have to “live” in the camp for three days to better understand what it is like. It’s not very feasible, but it would provide perspective.
That’s really what this entire trip ended up being for me. I gained perspective on a worldwide issue that everyone knows about. I forever tied myself to a human event that will define human history. I forced myself to be put into situations that were uncomfortable, dangerous, and completely necessary to better serve and understand these people.
I sat at a gate for 90% of my shifts in camp. I spent approximately 160 hours sitting by a gate made out of metal bars and chainlink fencing looking at nothing other than the area around me and interacting with the same people over and over again. That amount of time pales in comparison to those that have spent years in camp, but I felt the tediousness of the situation and the conditions of the camp weighed heavy on me.
I’ll never be able to fully understand the way they feel about everything they’ve been through. I’ll hopefully never know what it is like to leave my home, family, and life behind in search of safety and a new start. I hope that no one ever has to feel that, but I know people still will.
I know that refugees will continue to exist. I know that wars will still destroy lives. That’s why I will continue to do what I do. I will continue to pursue truth in all circumstances. I will continue to discover humanity through experiencing humanity. I will continue to provide a voice for those that feel theirs has been revoked. I will continue to shine a light on human issues. If I don’t, who else will?
I’ve been talking about pursuing conflict and humanitarian photojournalism for the past year or so now, and I will continue to pursue that path after this experience. I cling to a declaration by the late Tim Hetherington, a conflict journalist I admire the most. He said, “I’m trying to explain the world to the world.” I want to take that and run with it. Our world is a crazy, messed up place. I don’t want to coast through life comfortably working a 9 to 5 job with 2.5 kids and a white picket fence. I want to sacrifice my life for those who feel they don’t have one.
With that in mind, I don’t want to miss the beautiful, heartwarming moments life has to offer. Even in great affliction, joy and wonder are found. I don’t want to miss the collateral beauty.