I was humbled, humbled, when I heard this poor Syrian man—a “white shirt man,” he said (he meant white collar worker)—break down on NPR as he talked about being a stranded migrant worker in Greece, trying to get to the UK … and in impeccable English.
He said, “If someone is looking for someone who speaks Syrian and English, with a background in finance …” He was so gracious and hopeful, speaking to the American woman who was interviewing him. He needed her—and through her, us, the world beyond that beach in Greece—to understand that things weren’t what they appeared.
I know, I think, how he feels.
When I was first a single mom checking groceries in a Piggly Wiggly, I had to stifle myself to keep from saying to every customer, “This job is not who I am.” Because, you know, we humans, we judge what we see on the surface. It embarrasses me to say this about myself, that I thought I was better than that job checking groceries; I’ve grown some since then. But when it first happens to you—like this man, trying to say, “I wore suits to work. I supported my family”—it’s hard to believe that you’ve found yourself in this circumstance. It’s hard to believe when you find yourself eating crackers to survive, as he was in that moment.
It hit me very hard—the tragedy of this situation (the man’s wife and child are waiting in Syria; he hopes to get to England, to get a job and bring them into the country legitimately, on an airplane). But also the embarrasment I feel now for being the me who worked at the Piggly Wiggly, who thought she was too special and smart to check groceries. (Oh, I had a lot of growing to do, I must say.) The shame I feel for only speaking one language. And the gratitude I have, in every fiber of my being, for the pure luck of being where I am right now—cool and clean and well fed and employed and happy.
I drove down South Church Street, weeping.
Then this photo turned up on the interwebs.
This is not the same man as the one I heard interviewed. But it is the embodiment of the old saw about a picture being worth a thousand words. It truly is. I don’t know how anyone could look on this and not cry, even without knowing this man’s story. (In fact, his tears are ones of relief, that they made it out of Syria, he and his wife and two children, and are relatively safe. Here are two stories about it.)
My heart is breaking for these people who have had their lives disrupted by war. If you want to have your heart broken (and you should), have a look at these photos. (In the link to the NPR story, you can read a transcription of the interview, but I strongly urge you to listen, to hear the voices and the tears.)
These two stories—the man on NPR and the man in the photo—embody two approaches. Some, like the first man, leave wives and children behind; they know the trip will be arduous and full of uncertainties. They hope to send for their loved ones after they’ve prepared a place for them. Others, like the man in the photo, are afraid to leave anyone behind. Can you blame them? But both ideas make sense to me.
I wish and hope that this crisis is resolved soon. I pray that the men will find work in their new countries and that they will be safe and welcomed. I am thankful, so thankful, for my own good fortune—which is nothing more than an accident of birth.