Hierarchies of the destitute
Syrians appear in the most unlikely places in the new collection Refugees Worldwide: Literary Reportage, compiled by Luisa Donnerberg and Ulrich Schreiber. The recurring presence of Syrians is not apparent from the book′s table of contents – only one of its fourteen literary essays was written by a Syrian. The essays, by authors around the world, explore the stories of Salvadoran refugees in Belize; Haitian refugees in Brazil; Hazaran refugees fleeing Pakistan; Ukrainians seeking refuge inside the Ukraine; and a lone Congolese man who fled to Tokyo.
Yet, in the unlikeliest of paragraphs, we find Syrians. They often don′t appear as individuals, but as a group against which other refugee stories are measured. Syrians become a counterpoint or complaint, or, in one essay, they appear just to emphasise that the refugees depicted are not Syrian.
The first essay, ″Exile is My Identity″, written by Nora Bossong and translated by Kurt Beals, is set in the U.S.. Before Bossong moves on to discuss a variety of exiles, she addresses the U.S. government′s reaction to Syrians, noting that the country hasn′t come close to meeting its share of 10,000 new Syrian residents.
Syrians appear in a far less sympathetic light in Andrea del Fuego′s ″Anthropophagists Still″, translated by Jethro Soutar. In del Fuego′s essay, Syrians are an indistinguishable, privileged and wholly Muslim monolith.
Syrians have it easy, del Fuego suggests, as they have established paths to integration in Brazil and have a story known around the world. She goes on to quote a refugee worker who gives unflattering generalisations about all Muslim communities in Sao Paolo.
Yet Del Fuego isn′t the only author to mention the relatively privileged position Syrians occupy in some refugee communities.
In ″Refugees and Migrants at the Nador Border″, Moroccan author Najat El Hachmi paints refugee life as difficult for anyone, but also recognises that most Syrians have it easier than sub-Saharan Africans.
″Syrians can pass by unnoticed among Moroccans, but black people can′t hide the colour of their skin, a colour that means they must endure a specific kind of brutality. ″
This isn′t true only in Morocco, El Hachmi writes, since the wars south of the Sahara ″don′t receive the same prominence as the war in Syria, because they are old, chronic and, probably, because they take place in Africa.″
Syrians don′t appear only in essays set in Morocco and Brazil. Artem Chapeye′s ″Permanent Transit″, translated from Russian by Marian Schwartz, is about Ukrainian refugees. And yet Syrians are mentioned – if only to note Ukrainians are not that kind of refugee, the kind Western journalists expect.
Finding the perfect refugee
In ″Nour′s Eyes″, Greek novelist Amanda Michalopoulou writes, in part, about her irritation at visiting Syrian refugees. In the end, Michalopoulou finds a refugee she likes, the titular Nour, a charming, bright-eyed 12-year-old girl. ″When I think of her, I don′t think of her as a Syrian refugee, she doesn′t need that label. I think of her simply as an extraordinary, radiant little girl.″
Nils Mohl is cognisant of the ″ideal refugee″ trope as he writes ″Land of Heroes: Lithuania′s Very Own Refugee Crisis″, translated by Max Reinhold. The essay centres around two men: a Syrian journalist with fluent English and an Afghani refugee, Basir Yousofy, who speaks Lithuanian. Both men are handsome, ambitious and competent – both could be ″ideal″ refugees. Yet only Basir has the right connections to become a star refugee, as he appears in a viral YouTube video and is known to Lithuanian commander Jurgis Norvaisa. The Syrian journalist, meanwhile, is shunted to a small Lithuanian town.