West indian literature

What the Classic Literature Says About the Challenges of Refugees Fleeing Persecution


The United Nations has warned that the war in Ukraine could create “the biggest refugee crisis of this century”. Two and a half million people have already fled.

Meanwhile the rest of the world sits watch the war on the screensthat can promote empathy but can also lead to helplessness and helplessness.

There is another way to try to understand refugee experiences. Alongside the reality of desperate people fleeing danger, there is a rich history of classic texts about characters seeking protection or new lives.

As professor of humanities and lawI spent the last few years dive deep in what classical literature has to say about the challenges of fleeing persecution. Of Ulysses and Dante the pilgrim to Frankenstein’s monster, many familiar characters encounter obstacles well known to contemporary refugees.

These stories cannot replicate what it is like to see bombs and shells raining down on Syria, Ukraine or Yemen. But they can help readers relate to characters they already know, which can, in turn, create empathy and compassion for refugees.

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A text that should be recalled in this respect is the Book of Exodus and in particular the scene in which God appears to Moses at the burning bush.

God observed the suffering of the Israelites as slaves in Egypt, he reveals to Moses. The Almighty wishes to intervene – and asks Moses to act as his emissary.

“I will send you to Pharaoh, and you will free my people, the Israelites, from Egypt,” God commands.

“God Appears to Moses in the Burning Bush”, by Eugène Pluchart. Photo credit: St. Isaac’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg/Wikimedia Commons

Moses’ first reaction is not to obey, but to question. “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” He asked. He fears that his poor speaking skills make him ill-equipped to do God’s will. “I was never a man of words,” he protests. “I am slow in speech and slow in language.”

His reluctance is a reminder that vulnerable migrants often have nothing with them but their own story – a story they may have to tell in a language that is not their own. Ukrainians who are currently in flight, for example, will have to explain themselves adequately. Being able to tell their story in the right way, to the right people, will be crucial to their very survival.

Moses also does not know if God is really who he claims to be. Can this great power be trusted? asks Moses. As refugees flee their country of originthey, too, may wonder whether they should trust people and officials of powerful institutions offering aid, such as host country officials or representatives of UN agencies or nongovernmental organizations.

Promise of a better life

To persuade Moses to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, God promised the Israelites not only protection, but a better life“I will take you out of the misery of Egypt…into a land flowing with milk and honey.

Historically, many people fleeing their countries do not escape war or persecution, but poverty – although the boundaries between refugees and so-called economic migrants are getting more and more blurry. Those wishing to deny entry to refugees or undocumented migrants describe them as “parasitesor “illegals” who leave their homes to collect milk and honey from other people’s lands.

novel by John Steinbeck Grapes of Wrath tells the story of desperate American families during the Great Depression fleeing the dust bowl droughts that have devastated their crops. They are “people on the run, refugees from dust and shrinking land, thunder from tractors and invasion, twisted winds howling from Texas, floods bringing no wealth to the land and stealing what little wealth there is. ”

They dream of a new paradise, and of abundance. Tom Joad, one of the book’s key characters, gives a vision of life he imagines in California: “I’m going to get me a big bunch of grapes out of a bush, or whatever, and I’m going to crush them on my face and let them run down my chin.

It may be a pipe dream, but what option do these vulnerable migrants have? Like millions of people in places like India, Philippines or Bangladesh, they have been internally displaced due to natural disasters and climate change. The only way to safety is forward.

“How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past? Steinbeck writes. “No. Leave it. Burn it.”

leave paradise

No matter how severe the persecution, not everyone will flee in search of protection. Home always gives us a sense of grounding, home is where we speak the language, home is where we have friends and family, and home is filled with familiar landmarks.

And for people fleeing Ukraine, the decision to leave means enduring huge lines, freezing cold and administrative barriers – especially for non-Europeans who resided in Ukraine, such as indians and Africanswho have been discriminated against.

by John Milton lost paradise is one of the great stories of massive displacements and efforts to survive in an inhospitable environment. This 17th century epic poem describes two acts of exile: the expulsion of the rebellious angels from heaven and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

After the war in heaven, when Satan attempts to lead a third of the angels into rebellion, God’s retribution is swift and horrific. Satan’s followers are “thrown headlong, flaming from the ethereal sky / With hideous ruin and downward burning / Towards bottomless perditionthere to dwell,” in Milton’s description.

Even Satan, who was actively leading the uprising, was filled with despair at all he had lost: “Now the thought / both of lost happiness and lasting pain / torments him.”

An illustration for John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ by Gustave Doré. Photo Credit: Paradise Lost/ Wikimedia Commons

These terrifying lines contain one of the most important insights from Milton’s masterpiece for today’s migration crises. Through the expulsion, these fallen angels lost everything they held dear, and now they are doomed to hell. Their pain is mixed with “stubborn pride” and “unshakeable hatred”.

If contemporary refugees are unable to find a new sense of belonging and opportunity, then their frustration and trauma sometimes turn into resentment and radicalization. From Ukraine and Yemen to Afghanistan and elsewhere, many desperate people need not just assistance, but long-term solutions that give them a chance to rebuild their lives.

These examples taken from classic texts intimately portray the challenges of refugees through characters that have populated our imaginations. Perhaps this same process of creative association with well-known displacement stories can help inspire ways to help the vulnerable migrants among us.

Robert F. Barsky is Professor of Humanities and Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University.

This article first appeared on The conversation.

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