Writing for rights and writing wrongs this December

Dear Reader,

I’m going to endeavour to keep this short because it’s Christmas and most reading this are too hungover, frazzled, and marinated in mulled wine and the repressed wrath only once-a-year family reunions can ignite to read more than is absolutely necessary. I assure you, this is absolutely necessary.

Christmas is, in my opinion, a time of narrowing our globalised binoculars to look inwards. We cocoon ourselves in familial interiors, retreat from the insomniac ether in favour of the equally enigmatic ‘home’. We move to the inner ripples of our existence, back to the locus of creation – family, childhood bedroom, school friends, local community, our own inner self. It is both my absolute favourite thing about Christmastime and the thing that most upsets me – this honeyed absorption in our own whorl of world, this beaten retreat to foetal bleariness, this get-out-of-jail card grâce à la the most wonderful time of the year that condones self-engrossment under the guise of ‘family time’, ‘party season’, ‘if you can’t say it/ buy it/ eat it/ do it/ drink it at Christmas, when can you, eh?’

And I am a whole-hearted part of this – I have committed all of the above with aplomb and embarrassing exuberance…today.

Here’s the thing, though. While turning inward is, in many ways, a vital cushioning we all need from a world that demands ever-more from us as employees, partners, friends, and social media users, it can cause us to overlook the grim reality that exists on the periphery of city street lights. It renders us incapable to see the wood from the pine tree.

I’ve never really understood that expression and so don’t know how to weight it in analogy – is wood the metaphorical reality and the trees the hubbub of superficiality? Let’s say that’s right. There are many cases of injustice one could dwell on this Christmas but allow me to bring before you just one – the atrocity that is the island of Lesvos and the crimes that small Greek isle (led by the nefarious might of EU governments) is unleashing on, not just the refugees arriving daily on its shores, but on those trying to save their lives when governments will not.

Seán Binder and Sarah Mardini are two search and rescue volunteers who worked on Lesvos in 2018. They coordinated and ran boat spotting and rescue operations, trawling the small coastline that still, up until the point of writing this, sees people arriving from nearby Turkey EVERY DAY. Their job was, essentially, to do what those in power would not: to step in and save the lives of innocent people as they crossed from what they thought was hell to an eventual new chapter in tiny rubber dinghies built for eight but often overcrowded with double – even triple – that volume. For this work, they are now facing 25 years in prison having already spent more than 100 days behind bars in 2018.

Their alleged crimes? Spying, people smuggling, money laundering, belonging to a criminal organisation – a plethora of lies and fake news that, in the twisted machinations of today’s world have been avidly supported by a Greek government more interested in punishing the saving of (certain) lives than preventing the circumstances that require people having to be saved in the first place. Sarah and Seán aren’t the only humanitarians being punished for this crime of basic humanity – all over the world sacrificial lambs are being jailed, silenced, and sentenced to dissuade us from what should be the most natural impulse: helping.

The reason I am writing this is because there is something we can do about this – a simple email to the Greek government demanding all charges are dropped. Every December, Amnesty holds Write for Rights, a global letter-writing campaign for those whose human rights are being attacked. It is the world’s largest human rights event and a small but potent thing we can do to stand up to decision makers and affect change. Sarah and Seán are just one case Amnesty is asking us to protest this year and all it takes, if a personalised letter is too much, is a simple petition-signing, social media-sharing, posting into the festively-hopping WhatsApp groups.

Why? Because Sarah is 24 and Seán is 25. They deserve to have a life outside of bars – a life that will undoubtedly continue fighting to make this world a better place.

Because Sarah is herself a Syrian refugee. She made that same boat journey she spent months trying to prevent – 22 people on the precipice of drowning in a flooding rubber dinghy. Sarah, as a professional swimmer, was the first person to dive into the black water and start swimming the boat towards the shore. Three hours later and helped by her younger sister and a few other refugees, they reached the Greek shoreline – Sarah with a permanent injury that will prevent her from ever swimming professionally again. Because Sarah survived the hell that is Lesvos…and then went back again as a volunteer.

Because Seán is Irish. Because, in that inwardness I previously referred to, where our gaze is too often focused on ‘looking after our own’, he is the own who needs us now. He is the reason we should and must care about far-off strangers on an island we’ve only heard of in oblique and bleak headlines when we have enough problems here to be getting on with. Because Seán is an exceptional student who cannot get a job because he has a criminal record for crimes he wasn’t even in Greece to commit. He’s a person of integrity and courage who is now working in a health food shop part-time to pay off legal fees of 10,000. Because Seán’s is a name I knew long before he was arrested.

When I spent three weeks volunteering on Lesvos and used to conduct 3am boat spotting shifts, Sean’s legacy was everywhere and his name one uttered with so much warmth and admiration by all I (and he) seemed to encounter. It became apparent that the best parts of my work were because of and created by him. Seán didn’t just help people in need, he helped others to help people in need. He created a community, he created support and structure in an environment toxic and traumatising whether refugee or volunteer. He is our greatest ambassador and he deserves our support.

Because securitisation is working. Because criminalising humanitarians is doing exactly what governments want – it is preventing and dissuading others from engaging in humanitarian work. Since Seán and Sarah’s arrests, all of the search and rescue operations on Lesvos have ceased, bar two small organisations on the North of the island. This is despite the fact that boats filled with terrified, already traumatised, and, most importantly human people, continue to arrive with the frequency once deemed worthy of a newspaper headline. Because people are now doing exactly what those in power want: doubting the impulse to help.

You might have noticed that I haven’t called Seán or Sarah ‘heroes’. I cannot because, as Seán repeatedly says, to call their actions heroic is every bit as dangerous as calling them criminal. It catapults them into the category of extraordinary; it makes the impulse to act, to save a life, to do what should be morally right atypical, instead of typical. It is different but the same as the persecution of the Greek government – it is the terrifying act of ‘othering’ human kindness, compassion, and basic instinct. It is proliferating the idea that we all, as individuals and as global citizens, do not have a moral obligation to act, to do what we can to save a life in need. It is telling us – in the same way the Greek government is making us conform to such – that passivity is an acceptable norm. It is not.

Because here is the truth we don’t want to deal with. There is a future, so close some of us are already touching it, that will replicate the fascist atrocities of 1930s Europe. Does that sound dramatic to you? Does that sound radical? I promise you, it isn’t. I wish it was – for once, I wish I could be muffled with the tag of liberal extremist rather than be right. Yet, look to our borders, look to the oceans, look to the direct provision centres shoved into the corners of this country. Governments have already begun the process of a regime akin to Hitler’s Germany’s – where a life carries different value according to the body it’s in, the colour of someone’s skin.

There is a future where we will one day be the people in the history books we couldn’t understand – not the Nazi’s, not the tormentors but the ordinary citizens, the everyday people who simply stood back not seeing or choosing not to see what was happening around them. The ‘not on my doorstep’ people. The ones who opposed everything those dictators stood for but didn’t realise what was happening, the chain of events being set into motion with far-off legislation or general elections that didn’t seem related to people – some of them children – being left to drown in the Mediterranean while search and rescue boats are grounded without a country to champion them. We will be the people who we used to tut at in the history books – where were they? We asked. Why didn’t they do something? How could they have allowed this?

This is why we need to write letters. We need world leaders to know we are watching, to know that we see what they are doing and will not stand for it. With the securitisation of our borders, the “not my problem” shunning of responsibility by every other EU nation and with the sad knowledge that, regardless – regardless of what future awaits them – people are still coming, now is the time to start standing up and speaking out. I know most reading this won’t agree with the policies currently being inflicted on the most vulnerable but how do those in power know? How are we holding them accountable? A letter might sound stupid, insipid, in this day and age…but a sixteen-year-old began with a homemade sign in a street and is now the leader of one of the largest movements of our lifetime. If three words on a placard can bring world leaders to account, imagine what letters written by thousands, millions can achieve.

I cannot talk about what I’ve seen and experienced in refugee camps in both Northern France and on Lesvos. I just can’t and I am wracked with daily shame at this failure. I am embarrassed that I cannot use this platform to raise awareness about the truly harrowing reality being lived in makeshift tents and police regimes of cruelty, inhumanity, and violence. I am upset that I don’t have any answer for you – I cannot hyperlink you to a portal or a website that can right the wrongs of the refugee crisis.
But I can ask you to fight for Seán and Sarah. I can ask you to read this, share this, sign, retweet, stand up for this. I can ask you to begin with me – begin with Seán and Sarah and work our way towards defending those who are being left defenceless, begin the fight we’ve ignored for too long that is happening at borders that might not be ours but soon could be, for people that aren’t us but one day will be (and lord knows, have been). This isn’t a time to look inwards, this is a time to cast our humanity outwards – to latch our power onto the plight of the powerless, to raise them and the issue up until the politicians take notice and take action. Let’s end this year with action and let’s begin this action with a letter.

Resources for those looking to become more involved in the refugee crisis

  • Follow Help Refugees and support them by shopping from their ‘Choose Love’ store – the only online store where you can directly purchase products for refugees (from lifejackets to nappies
  • The New Odyssey is a brilliant book that charts the journey of many asylum seekers through real life stories
  • The Guilty Feminist featured interviews with both Seán and Sarah – listen to Seán’s episode here and Sarah’s there
  • Care for Calais and other NGOs working on the ground in areas such as Northern France are great resources that provide updates and reality checks in a media becoming increasingly disinterested with a worsening situation

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