A journey through the suburbs of existence.
The article I’m proposing today isn’t just run-of-the-mill. Rather, it’s an exercise – or, if you’d like, an interactive story – in which you, the reader, are the protagonist. Before we begin, I ask you to choose a quiet place, if possible, where you can read slowly, then close your eyes and use your imagination. Naturally, you’re free to follow these simple indications as you please. If you decide not to, however, you might be losing out on the possibility of making this article your own personal experience. Words alone are not enough, in fact, enough, and risk remaining lifeless without experience. That said, we can begin.
Imagine you’re in a situation where you’ve got to wait. You’ve been waiting a long time for someone to give you an important document. You’ve been waiting but, to be honest, you don’t really know precisely what document you’re waiting for. And you know even less about what the document will say. To make things worse, you didn’t choose to ask for this document. Someone told you that you need it. Without it, they said, you won’t be able to work or access some important services. You hope, every day, that this will be the day when you’ll finally receive a reply. But, the days go by. Days become weeks, and weeks months. Despite your repeated, legitimate demands to get an answer, you’re told: “We’re sorry, but we can’t do much for you. They’re the times we expect on this waiting list, unfortunately.” Or “Why are you still here? Bugger off, we’re working!” Other times you’re just met with silence. In the meantime, without the document, your situation is such that you can’t even search for a job. Neither can you accept any job if someone happens to offer you one (and by job, here, I mean any job which is actually legal). You still need to eat, have a shower, buy decent clothes, and have a place to stay at when it rains. You might still need to charge your phone. If you’re unemployed, you’re unlikely to have the money necessary to live a “normal life”. What are you going to do?
Read the last paragraph again. Then close your eyes and imagine yourself in this situation. How does it make you feel?
Angry, powerless, rejected, rebellious, anxious? The need to change something? All of these and others, perhaps. But let’s continue.
Place yourself in this scenario once again. You probably thought you might have some help from your family, or that some friend or acquaintance of yours might have helped alleviate the situation. That’s completely understandable in such circumstances. But your family, friends and connections are far away. You’re alone for the first time in your life, lost in a huge city in a new country that you probably didn’t want to come to. You have no clue as to where you are, who the people are, and how to get around. Your habits and your culture are very different to the ones you find yourself immersed in now. You can’t even present yourself properly because of the language barrier. You happen to exchange a few words with someone from time to time – at least with those who approach you hoping to help. But it’s too difficult for him or her to help you bear the weight of you problems, so they simply opt to give you some money before heading in their own direction. Some people simply don’t have time to listen to you. Others give you small change out of pity – with a smile, of course.
Some people pretend not to see you. Others, you notice, turn up their noses without even knowing who you are. You have no point of reference other than the government offices where you’ve got to for that document you’re waiting for, the train station, the usual bus routes and those soup kitchens you go to for lunch. Since you don’t have any money or means by which to live, you find yourself having to resort to other people’s charity.
Every day, you line up and wait. You tend to spend quite a bit of time waiting – there are many others in the same situation as yourself, while the places that can help are few. It’s absolutely necessary to find something to eat, but it’s just as important to find a power supply to charge your phone. It’s the only way to hear the voice of your loved ones. At times, it might be the only way to silence those feelings of guilt you’re keeping locked up inside. After all, no matter the many difficulties you’re facing in this country and the scarce protection you’ve been given, the persons dearest to you – at least, those you manage to contact – are exposed to grave danger, perils you yourself only just managed to escape.
Close your eyes. Imagine yourself hungry and in a queue: people pass you by, ignoring you. As you try, wet and cold, to protect your few personal belongings from the rain, do you manage to even feel anything? Are you honestly able manage to imagine yourself in this situation? I’m asking you because even while I write these words in the comfort and warmth of my room, living a “normal life”, I find it hard to imagine myself in such a situation!
Let’s get back to where we left off. You’re alone. You don’t have anything to get by, you don’t know how to speak the local language, you’re forced to spend most of your time trying to survive, and when you’re tired of a fast-paced and uncertain life and are desperately seeking some rest, you don’t have anywhere to go. You’re obliged to seek shelter wherever it might be. Many times you remain exposed to the elements. As if this weren’t enough, you run the risk of being beaten up by some hothead. Enough for you? More than enough for most. But there are still some things we need to factor in: the hostility and prejudice of some people (albeit a minority), physical and psychological stress, uncertainty about the future, ongoing frustration, nostalgia, fear and deprivation. And the story still hasn’t finished. We still need to consider the fact that you didn’t choose to leave your country voluntarily. You’ve been forced to walk thousands of kilometres, crossing the desert and the sea, and treated like merchandise by human traffickers, all to escape from your country: because in the place where you were born, where you find your roots and your history, you’re condemned to death. You’re condemned to death because of your political ideas, your social involvement, your religious beliefs, ethnic group, skin colour – or because you’re in the way of the local heavies. Back home, you had your own life. A “normal life”.
I’m not going to ask you any longer to imagine yourself in these scenarios. We can’t really imagine what it means to live like this. Yet this is the way in which thousands of men, women and children who’ve fled their homeland to escape from death live. They live looking towards the future with hope and courage as they try to build a new life for themselves. These people aren’t superheroes. They’re normal people, just like me and you. Let’s just compare this desire for life with the fatigue, boredom, lack of foresight and hope in the future we face on a daily basis: how can we speak endlessly about defending ourselves from the invasion? Isn’t all this an opportunity? An opportunity to live out a humanism of welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating others that reminds us of the reality called human mobility: for millennia we’ve come to know one another even though we come from very different geographical realities, recognising in one another our common humanity. A rich exchange precisely because of its diversity. “I am” isn’t a title conferred on the basis of merit, but the unique reality each one of us brings into the world in his or her incarnate diversity.