Europe is currently being confronted with thousands of refugees in search of hospitality.
(The author wrote this article in January 2016; reading time: 11 min.)
How to speak on the subject of refugees?
Until now, the editorial staff of ethicsofcare has remained silent on this issue, even though it is happening all around us and thus pertinent to our lives. This silence is due to the fact that we do not know how to speak correctly on the subject of refugees in Europe. Therefore, we have decided to write several articles in 2016 that deal explicitly with the refugee ‘crisis’, be it from a personal perspective; i.e. from personal experience. I am the first to write such an article, and in the coming year other editors will suit. Our hope is that this will create a dialogue amongst international care ethicists throughout the world.
A personal experience
My story begins on the second of November 2015; All Souls Day.
All Souls Day is a century-old annual Catholic celebration, where the deceased believers are commemorated in a requiem mass. This tradition of remembrance and prayer for the dead has spread beyond the doors of the church, as it appeals even to those who identify themselves as secular.
In the brand new Music Palace Tivoli Vredenburg in Utrecht, the director of the classical music program came up with the idea of organizing a national All Souls Day concert. In a promotional trailer he explains how much people feel the need to dwell on the memory of their dearly departed, especially in times of being overworked. Gabriël Fauré’s Requiem is a fitting main piece to serve this purpose. It is a well known and beloved work, a “special experience”, according to the director. With a slight hesitation, he adds, “in which I believe death is actually something beautiful.”
To speak in terms of ‘experiences’ and aesthetics fits well within Western culture and the market of late modernity. When the director discusses people who are under constant pressure, with barely a moment to reflect on their lives and to dwell on the misery of loss and death (which affect everyone at some point or another), he is naturally talking about Western people. Elsewhere in the world, many are caught up in a different kind of hurry, experiencing a great many things on the boundary of life and death. Categories of resignation and an appreciation for the beauty of death are irrelevant to these people. It’s not about the ‘experience’, but about survival. At the time when the trailer for the performance is being cut, the director isn’t yet aware of the fact that refugees who survived brutal journeys are to be part of the audience on November 2nd.
Hospitality and questions about ‘us’ and ‘them’
Near the Music Palace, five hundred refugees are staying in a conference center serving as a temporary emergency shelter. They are all men. At the initiative of Johannes Leertouwer, the conductor of the New Philharmonic Orchestra Utrecht, these men are invited to the concert.
On the evening of the performance, the audience enters the Great Hall, where countless burning candles and a diffuse, red-yellow lighting contribute to a receptive, contemplative mood. At the start of the concert Leertouwer says that there are many refugees among the concertgoers. They won’t be able to understand Brahms’ German, Fauré’s Latin or the Dutch Poet Laureate (who is there to recite some poetry). However, he is hopeful that the comforting language of music will connect people and also serve to transcend culture. A loud applause expresses a warm welcome to all.
Listening to the music, I experience a complex and confusing cluster of ambivalent thoughts and experiences. I am listening in terms of ‘us and them’, with my own ears, and what I presume to be theirs. Thinking in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’, which we recognize as risky within the ethics of care, is not right for several reasons.
It already seemed complicated to me, to give a secular interpretation of All Souls Day using religious Requiems from 19th century composers. Moreover, Brahms and Fauré themselves were rather context-critical in their pieces. Their lyrics, however, remain deeply Christian, so how does this pertain to the refugees, who are overwhelmingly of Muslim faith? And how does the late modern experiential and emotion culture resonate with people who have just suffered through God-knows-what? We read and hear about their experiences in the media, but they, there, right in front of us and next to us, carry the scars forever with them in their souls. The violence and horror of war, families torn apart, exploitative human traffickers, rickety boats, drownings, death.
And what about ‘us’? As for me, I am listening as a believer, but for most concertgoers in Utrecht this is not the case. I share religiousness with ‘them’, Muslims, albeit from a different tradition. The refugees – them – now seem to appear as a kind of unit, while they actually come from several different countries and cultures. Until recently, most of them did not know each other. And then the orchestra and members of the choir, they could in a different way also be described in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. They have come together in this setting, from different countries, all driven by a shared passion for music.
What we share in spite of all of these (and many other) differences, is what ethics of care identifies as a neglected reality and disregarded knowledge. We share our human condition that is vulnerable, fragile, precarious and contingent. All people of flesh and blood know and experience how much grief and suffering the loss of loved ones, loss of security and future can cause.
During the first part of the concert, with the beautiful ‘Kyrië Eleison’ and ‘Sie Sollen Getröstet Werden’ by Johannes Brahms, flashes, buzzes and noises of many cell phones disturb the contemplative atmosphere. A man from the audience requests for this to stop, but only when the request is repeated after the break, this time in Arabic, it actually diminishes.
During the break, the refugees are together in groups, and communication arises between them and the Utrecht concertgoers. Most of the refugees are, by the looks of them, in their twenties and thirties. Almost all of them are wearing black jackets and are beating each other on the shoulders in jovial fashion; they’re laughing somewhat awkwardly. On some of them I spot bandages and plasters. Volunteers from the emergency shelter are there to guide them.
They have arrived here in Holland hoping for a future perspective and for a place to be swiftly reunited with their loved ones. The cell phones serve to bridge the distances between the refugees, ‘us’, and those who stayed behind, ‘them’. Some of the most important ‘goods’ to these refugees are phone credit and network connections. Their relational infrastructure is maintained by the technical cleverness that is one of the hallmarks of late modernity.
Refugees in Europe
Europe struggles with what is called ‘a refugee problem’, ‘a refugee crisis’. In that context the German Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel states ‘Wir schaffen das.’ We will make it. But how, exactly? Merkel is referring to compassion, to justice. Shortly after All Souls Day, these virtues are put to the test.
Paris, 13th of November; Islamic terrorist attacks bring the world in a state of fear and anger. Strong rhetoric, à la George Bush in 2001, resounds from the corner of French president Francois Hollande. The Dutch prime minister echoes these sentiments. Ever since the attacks, Europe has been in a heightened state of readiness and alert. Right-wing politicians are using the events to make broad statements, proving their own points about ‘refugee danger’, whereas in actuality, this terrorism is exactly what these refugees are fleeing from. The nationalist naysayers do not seem to be concerned with this in the slightest.
In a German refugee shelter, a little girl is born, right before Christmas. Her Syrian parents name her Angela Merkel Al Ali, out of gratefulness for the reception they have enjoyed in Germany.
Cologne, New Year’s Eve. Over a thousand women are assaulted, some even raped, by large groups of intoxicated, shameless men. ‘Wir schaffen das’ is challenged when it is found that many of these shameless people are refugees. How are we to acknowledge both the nightmare these women suffered, and the nightmare of being a refugee, without playing off one against the other? Will ‘Europe’ accomplish to emphasize justice and mercy in the face of all of these contradictions? While all Arab men are being presented as ‘potentially dangerous’ in heated debates, national newspapers publish horrifying images. Not from Cologne, but from the war-torn areas many became refugees to flee from. These images are pictures of starvation victims, forced to their plight by the occupier, emaciated Syrians, barely clinging to life.
Later research shows that no refugees were involved in the rapes in Cologne. Amidst all of these contradictions a new year has commenced, and no one knows where any of this is going. To comfort and ‘getröstet werden’ (to be comforted) in these times of fear, insecurity and anger is both important and very difficult, when surrounded by ambivalence.
The ability of music to unite people
Johannes Leertouwer, the conductor, in an interview: ‘Societal relations, our capitalist system – where the rich can only get richer, and the poor can only get poorer – that can really upset me. Music is a way for me to maintain control over this anger’. Classical music to him serves the societal function of comforting, as well as distressing when necessary.
This is also how he interprets the function of Brahm’s ‘Deutches Requiem nach Worten der heiligen Schrift: Selig sind die da Leid tragen’, the first piece used in the All Souls Day performance. Brahms here deviates from the traditional Catholic Requiem, where the focus tends to be on life after death. He emphasizes not redemption of the dead, but rather the need for comfort of the living. Brahms does not choose the prescribed Biblical verses of Requiem, but rather a piece from the Sermon on the Mount. ‘Selig sind die da Leid tragen, denn sie sollen getröstet werden’. This lyric clarifies that comforting is made manifest from a core of mercy. The word itself can be traced back to the Hebrew word ‘chesed’, meaning mercifulness. It contains both compassion and actual aid; aid that someone in need may expect to receive. Aid of this kind, that no one can enforce, has the character of a gift. Providing merciful help is the core mission of the Lord to the believers.
Here, again, ‘us and them’ thinking doesn’t apply. Countless people, both religious and not-religious, come together in trying to uphold compassion, and to think in long-term solutions. Others, religious and not-religious, merely preach that closing the borders is the only solution.
Experiencing compassion and mercy will put those who suffer on a path to comfort; that’s how Leertouwer interprets Brahms’ composition. Can this become reality for all those women and men who have suffered in so many different ways, even – paradoxically – because of and through one another?
Realistic naivity of building relationships
It is January of 2016 and I look back at the Western All Souls Day concert with a perspective different from my earlier ambivalence. The perceived naivety of inviting refugees to ‘our’ activities mainly comes down to expressing that they are valuable people. Hence All Souls Day, was a day for all souls to gather, as pluriform as can be.
This naivity does not mean ignoring, reducing or denying the serious and complex issues caused by the reception of asylum-seeking refugees.
But I hope people will still dare to search for the ‘naivety’ of building relationships with ‘our refugees’ in 2016.