The Saga of Migrant Children
“I’ll go anywhere, even to America.”
It was 1994 when I heard these words, spoken by an Iraqi lad, Yasser. Yasser was barely 20, plodding sadly from embassy to embassy. He was in Jordan when the vicious US-led world embargo, only four years into reducing that country to shambles, was forcing Iraqis to escape waves of disease, deterioration and death generated by the siege. Several million mainly young and educated Iraqis would follow this despondent young man through the embargo. Many more left after the US invasion in 2003. Today, with new instability threatening the entire country Iraqis continue that reluctant quest.
“Even America”. !! Not a statement anyone, least of all Americans, wants to hear. In those two words, Yasser uttered so much about his dilemma. What haunts me until today was his tone:–deep lament. They are not words we can associate with those silent boatfuls of refugees, lines of women and men at visa offices, human trafficking, and UN camps. Yasser spoke to his sadness, his reluctance, his anger.
American citizens, the majority of whom are themselves descendants of emigrants, are currently debating the fate of tens of thousands of children stumbling across their southern borders. Yet how many can comprehend Yasser’s sadness? How does the United States so rapidly become a hallowed and privileged goal to those of us now comfortably lodged here?
We should remember that U.S.A is a goal only when one’s own homeland is wracked by insecurity, where parents are unable to see any future for their young. As Alexandra Early (http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/06/27/the-desperate-choices-behind-child-migration/ ) observes of an ongoing Salvadorian exodus: “The vast majority of Salvadorians, like other Central Americans, don’t want to migrate to the U.S. They love their families and communities and would much prefer to stay … in their own countries”. This same applies to Iraqis, etc.
For Salvadorians, Iraqis, like Syrians, Hondurans, Vietnamese, Sudanese and countless other petitioners at our borders, migration is not a first choice, neither for youngsters nor adults. But parents, year after year, seeing such bleak prospects in their homeland, reluctantly apply all their energies and funds to sending away their children.
Speaking to a colleague in Syria only yesterday, she informed me her daughter is now in The Emirates (UAE). She sighed: “At least our children may be safe”. But then, reflecting, she added, “Look how we seem happy that our children are not here beside us”.
This is repeated in millions of homes across the world. War, persecution, poverty, and exploitation are the source. Often, whether in Honduras Vietnam or Palestine, we know it’s a product of ongoing self-interested, heartless U.S. policies and unholy alliances, and America’s search for unlimited economic gain.
In the case of Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, places I’ve written about, émigrés depart thinking it’s a temporary move. Then strife at home, and in neighboring countries where other family members fled, continues. A decade on, they find themselves sponsoring loved ones to join them. A generation later, the process continues. Yasser ended up in Australia and I wouldn’t be surprised if, at 40 now, some of his brothers and sisters and their families are with him there. Yet, for every family who secures resettlement, thousands of others remain—because they can’t leave, or to secure their home and their homeland, somehow enduring, rebuilding, hanging on and believing it is worthwhile, that conditions might… somehow, improve.
The holy month of Ramadan has arrived—a time, alongside the prayers, contemplations and breaking-fast when families feel so much joy being together. I doubt if there is one among Muslims worldwide who doesn’t feel the absence of our children or our parents, our husband, our wife, our mother, our beloved brother and sister, during these days.
Barbara Nimri Aziz is an anthropologist and journalist based in New York. Her book “Swimming Up the Tigris: Real Life Encounters in Iraq” (2007) documents the embargo war against Iraq.