Migration Crisis

Richard has read Foucault and Baudrillard, and also Hegel and Nietzsche, but he doesn’t know what you can eat when you have no money to buy food. Jenny Erpenbeck

Almost every day I read another story about the plight of migrants. A boat capsized in the Mediterranean, almost one hundred drowned. The government of X turned back several hundred migrants who had walked all the way from Syria. The people of country Y have erected chain-linked fences to keep the migrants from entering.

I sit in my chair and am appalled. What good are my feelings in the face of these stories? What good are my feelings if I do nothing? But what can I do? I read two novels about migrants to see if they have an answer.

In Exit West, Mohsin Hamid writes about a young couple, Saeed and Nadia, who meet in an unnamed Middle Eastern city and fall in love. When violence erupts and Saeed’s mother is killed, the couple begin making plans to leave. They learn of magical doors that open to new lands.

The first door takes them to Mykonos, where they settle in a tent city. They meet a Greek girl there who helps them to another door that takes them to London. As more migrants arrive there, the hostility of the native-born convinces Nadia to leave through another door that opens in Marin County in California.

They seem welcome there, but in time they realize they no longer love one another and go their separate ways. Fifty years later they meet by chance again and Saeed offers to take Nadia to see the stars in Chile.

While I sympathize with Nadia and Saeed, Exit West has no answer for me, so I turn to another novel hoping it might.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck is the story of Richard, a retired, classics professor of comfortable means who, for reasons that are not entirely clear seeks to learn about the migrants he sees one day in a Berlin square. He wants to know where they are from, why they left, what they did before leaving, what their hopes are for the future.

They are from Nigeria, Syria, Ghana, Niger or Burkina Fasso. They are Awad, Rashid, Osarobo. They speak English, Italian, French and other less known languages. Richard begins talking to them, they begin to trust him and welcome his visits.

Richard starts to take them food, tries to teach them German and then invites them to his home. He teaches one to play his piano, another to cook meals and eventually allows a group of them to stay in his home.

In these ways, Richard begins to befriend and learn about the refugees he chanced upon one day in Berlin. He begins to understand their plight, the daily suffering they encounter and how they plan to avoid it.

In Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone I begin to find an answer to my initial question, to go beyond my feelings and translate them into action.

We are all migrants though time. Mohsin Hamid