Residents of the United States are familiar with tales of immigration. Whether they understand what motivates a person to leave their home and culture for a new environment often depends on whether or not they know anyone who has risked everything to do so. Whether or not they sympathize is an entirely different question. In general, when most people in the US think of immigrants, they think of people from Latin America. A new book by Iranian-American Behzad Yaghmaian explores the European counterpart to western hemispheric migration. Yaghmaian is a naturalized US citizen who was born in Iran and currently teaches economics at Ramapo College in New Jersey. In order to write this book, he spent two years in migrant communities in Turkey, Greece, France and elsewhere in Europe. He befriended men and women on the run and without papers living in those communities and on the road. He saw the bruises and fractures suffered by his migrant friends from the police and border security. He listened to their tales of persecution in their home countries and wondered along with his subjects whether migration was always the right thing for them to do. He met beautiful caring men and women with their families and he met scam artists whose life experience taught them that hustling was the best way to survive in the subterranean world of the undocumented human. He met men and women whose lives had fallen into a despair that they met with drugs and violence. And his book tells their stories.
Underlying the human stories inside Embracing the Infidel: The Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West is the understanding that these stories could be quite different if immigration law was different. Although one of the claims of proponents of the European Union (EU) was that it would open borders, that has only been partially true. Much like NAFTA and the proposed FTAA economic agreements in the western hemisphere, the EU only opened Europe’s borders for capital. Indeed, one of the requirements for countries like Turkey desiring entry into the EU is that they adopt the restrictive immigration policies of that economic community. Since the events of 911 and, more recently, the bombings in Spain and Great Britain, those restrictions have become even tighter. Amnesty International is on record against the EU immigration agreements, stating that the EU has put security above human rights. What this all means for people from Africa and the Middle East who are seeking a new life in Europe is that they are pushed even further into a semi-legal existence where they become prey for criminals on both sides of the law.
Yaghmaian does not use his text to argue against these policies. He barely even mentions them. Instead, he tells the stories of the men and women he got to know during his time in the migrant ghettoes and camps. It is their tales that convince the sympathetic reader that these policies are, at the least in the need of reform and at worst, wrong and inhumane. Indeed, the people profiled often bring up these very issues. The stories here are poignant and gritty. They tell of the racism and ethnic rivalries within the migrant communities–rivalries that sometimes erupt into physical conflict over control of the human smuggling business; and they tell of friendships that cross those very same ethnic rivalries. These are the stories of human survival and human failure; families torn apart by war and strife and families strengthened by these very same phenomenon. They are depressing tales that sparkle with human hope. A hope that defies the power arrayed against the individuals depicted. It is more than the stories of migrants, it is the story of those in the world that have been left behind in the era of global capitalism.
Furthermore, it is often the story of those who are victims of the wars of that very same global capitalism. While Mr. Yaghmaian never indicts any particular government or international entity, there is an understanding that runs through the book that these people are often running from their homelands in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kurdistan because that land was destroyed by US weaponry wielded either by the US military or its clients. In other instances, the people running are running from religious zealotry. This is especially the case of many of the Iranians who spill their stories to Yaghmaian. Iranian women and men tell a bleak story of their lives in Iran. Those who were old enough to know the Shah’s regime tell of their persecution (or their parents) under his regime. Their tales are then enjoined by younger Iranians that have their own tales of arrest and torture at the hands of the mullahs’ security forces. Yet, due to the tighter asylum rules put into law by the EU, these folks’ applications are rejected, usually in the name of economics, although that is rarely said.
Perhaps the most heartrending story in the book is the tale of a family from Sudan. During an attempt to get from Turkey to Greece, her husband and daughter are separated from her. They made it and she didn’t. We first meet her while she is living in the migrant ghetto in Istanbul. College educated and a victim of the wars in the Sudan, she left that country with her husband and daughter at her father’s urging. He wanted her to do better and knew that her education and intelligence would not be appreciated in the male-oriented village culture where she was born. Despite a well-written application and a story of persecution, her application for asylum is denied. She gives birth to her second child in the Istanbul apartment she shares with a dozen or so other migrants. In the middle of what most Westerners could only call despair, her neighbors celebrate the birth with food and song. Around six months later, she finally made it into Greece and rejoined her husband and son. Their hopes were reborn.
Behzad Yaghmaian titles his book of migrant tales Embracing the Infidel. One assumes he is referring to the desires of the migrants he meets to adjust and tolerate the customs and culture of their new homelands–cultures many Muslims consider to be infidel. It seems to me that the title could just as easily refer to the task ahead for those citizens of the nations Yaghmaian’s migrants are moving to. These citizens must also learn to embrace and tolerate the culture of the Muslim migrants. This is no easy task, especially given the anti-Islamic undercurrent that resides in most Western cultures and is currently being fanned by establishment politicians of almost every stripe. An important first step in this process would be recognizing our common humanity. Mr. Yaghmaian’s compelling work does its part.