Upheaval: The Refugee Trek Through Europe by Navid Kermani, published by Polity Books, recounts the author’s travels along Europe’s refugee road. He traces the path of those seeking asylum in his native Germany as they make their way from Turkey to Lesbos in Greece and then on through Eastern Europe to the relative salvation of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcoming borders.
Of course the refugees’ journeys didn’t begin in Turkey, they began in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. They have walked, paid smugglers exorbitant fees for passage in unsafe boats to make it this far. Now they find they have to make their way across Europe to find the one central European country willing to give them sanctuary. For while Scandinavia has continued to welcome refugees, Europe, especially Eastern Europe, has been returning to its old patterns of antipathy for anyone different.
Kermani follows the refugee trail backwards across Europe. In Hungary they’re herded into public parks serving as way stations as they wait for transportation to Germany. The government actively ferments public disapproval through billboards featuring a beautiful blond model saying she objects to illegal aliens. The author meets with those who have tried to help the refugees and finds them nervous and worried. One, a writer, says the enemy isn’t Muslims, its anyone different; gays, Jews, Romani, a critical media or any sort of opposition.
Many might find some sort of irony in this, but Germany is the one country in Europe welcoming the refugees – they’ve taken in over a million by the time the author is writing this. Kermani isn’t sure what caused Merkel’s change of heart – she had initially opposed open borders – but change she has and Germany has become a beacon of hope for those fleeing terror and oppression.
Through Kermani’s eyes we see refugees trudging up the road from the beeches on the island of Lesbos in Greece after completing the passage by water from Turkey. We see them huddled in groups on the shores of Turkey waiting for the smugglers willing to run the blockade of Turkish patrol boats to take them over to Greece. We hear of how they pay far too much money for passage in overcrowded boats.
Yet, people still persist in saying there might be terrorists lurking among them. What Kermani finds is the refugees, from young men to families, are just as worried about terrorists as everybody else. After all they’re fleeing them. Whether from Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan they are running away from Islamic State or some other variation on that theme.
Upheaval: The Refugee Trek Through Europe was originally commissioned as series of articles for the German newspaper Der Spiegel but has been updated and expanded upon for the book. You can hear/see the author striving to maintain his journalistic objectivity, but in the face of what he witnesses it’s next to impossible. When a young Afghan man, who has had all his money stolen and is nearly without water or food, offers him a drink from his only bottle of water you can almost hear Kermani’s heart breaking.
Of special note are the photographs by Moises Saman which accompany Kermani’s words. They are stark glimpses into a reality few of us can even begin to understand and serve as the perfect compliment to the text. While pictures of families clinging to each other tug at the heart strings, his photo of a refugee’s bare exposed bare feet is a more compelling testament to the trials these people are experiencing than anything else I’ve seen.
Kermani has done a great job of not only capturing something of what the refugees are experiencing as they take the last stage of their journey to what they hope will be a new world, but the mood of the people whose hands they pass through. He shines a light in the dark spaces of our current world and exposes the dirty and shameful way we treat our fellow human beings.