“Vienna is a beautiful city,” I said to the taxi driver. My eyes had remained glued out the window since we left the airport, trying to absorb every fine detail my next destination had to offer.
“Yes, well it was…,” he said, looking out of his thick, round glasses, a sort of impatience overcoming him. His finger tapping on the steering wheel, faster than the indicator blinking through the red. He looked at me and rolled his eyes, “…it was beautiful until they all came. Now, everything is different.”
I knew immediately who he was referring to, because it was something that I had continuously heard from locals as I travelled across Europe. Repeatedly, conversations in taxis turned to monologues of fear; fear of change, of diversity but most of all, the fear of the migrants themselves. But, perhaps what was most striking about this recurring rhetoric was the tone which it encompassed. I quickly became acquainted with their resonance of annoyance, a seemingly ingrained irritation. An almost spiteful proclamation that the culture would shift to unrecognisable measures, that the very essence of the given country would diminish. Yet, whilst listening to these agitated cries, what was absent was the recognition, however slight, that these refugees were fleeing persecution, escaping a war that had destroyed their way of life, culture and country. It was as if in they were no longer people, but an idea that was so acutely feared that the very notion of humanity just simply didn’t belong in the prose.
Between April 2011 and June 2017, the UN Refugee Agency estimated around 983, 876 first-time applicants for asylum in Europe from Syria. The conflict in Syria is no longer between those for or against President Bashar al-Assad, but it has colossally encompassed sectarian overtones, drawing in regional and world powers as well as the rise of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS). A UN commission of inquiry found that all parties to the conflict have committed war crimes and all have contributed to an unprecedented civilian suffering. The murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearances of civilians used as a method of war. Whilst urgent attempts by the international community have insisted against indiscriminate use of weapons, the death toll steadily rises. Syria the ancient pearl, a land described as the beginning of civilisation, torn.
Yet, the utter devastation that the Syrian conflict represents is all too easily dismissed in the name of fear. People who have lost their families, homes, way of life, are reduced to numbers – numbers that represent the amount a nation has to accommodate, the amount of jobs needed, the amount of money it will cost them. They forget about Jihan, who despite being blind, fled Damascus with her two young sons in a 45-hour treacherous voyage to Greece. Or 67-year-old Ahmed, who lost eight family members at sea when their boat tragically sunk. They don’t see 21-year old Marwan who refused to join the fighting effort and not long after lost his left arm and right eye through shelling. Or university student Hussein, who was left with no other choice but to follow the road that so many others had taken and pay to be smuggled out of Syria. Electrical engineer Karim, who owned and operated his own business before being forced to flee.
These thousands of untold stories are only further muffled by politicians stroking the existing fear of migrants and refugees. The danger of cultural diversity becomes a defining narrative for elections in the West and has featured prominently in the anti-immigrant rhetoric of right-wing parties. Yet the threat to the life of a nation does not come from isolated acts from the fringes. Rather, the evermore imminent danger comes from a government and society that refuses to accept change. Countries that are deeply nostalgic, clinging to a time that cannot be returned to are dangerous. They are dangerous because they are prepared to abandon their own values to maintain the bygone era they so desperately cherish. They are dangerous because they will recognise refugees as a burden rather than an opportunity. But perhaps most dangerously, they will see numbers before they see humanity in desperation.
I hope that one day, when I’m admiring the wonders of another country, someone will be able to turn to me and say; “thank you, it is a beautiful city. And it only keeps on getting better.”