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Thursday, September 1, 2016

Selective Compassion: From 'Economic Migrants' to Refugees of the International Olympic Committee

I have always loved the Olympics. For as long as I can remember I have watched the Games. I get choked up, I yell at the TV, I set my alarm for the middle of the night to watch the action unfold in real time. The Games, despite scandal and neigh sayers, have always filled me with enthusiasm. I am forever a fan.

This year, like many people, I have been moved by the first ever inclusion of a group of refugee athletes who competed under the International Olympic Committee (IOC) flag in Rio as the Refugee Olympic Team - the 'refugee team’ as the media calls them. While their inclusion seems to fully embody the Spirit of the games:

The Olympic spirit is best expressed in the Olympic Creed: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."

I bristle under the fact that many English language, mainstream news outlets from the BBC to the New York Times and beyond also referred to these same people as ‘migrants’ and less ambiguously, as ‘economic migrants.’ These terms come with the unstated context that they are economic opportunists seeking (only) your jobs, welfare and higher standard of living. Still worse, these people, many millions of them, have also been labeled as potential ‘terrorists’ and criminals, while in fact, it is these same people who are actually facing, and consequently fleeing from, terrorism and criminal violent acts in their home countries.These words, ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ are not synonyms and can only be used interchangeably in a disingenuous manner.
refugee: someone who has been forced to leave a country because of war or for religious or political reasons.
migrant: a person who goes from one place to another especially to find work (especially in harvesting crops)
a bird or animal that moves from one area to another at different times of the year

Please note, synonyms for migrant include 'fugitive' and 'nomad', but not refugee.
Make no mistake about it, these people are not migrants. And these words do matter. These refugees are fleeing a political, humanitarian crisis* which destroyed their lives. They left all of their worldly possessions, their homes, pets, neighbors, cars, careers and country because they want to LIVE and to see their kids grow up, too. But unlike a flock of birds heading south for the winter, they dream of having dignity, opportunity and peace, not just a still-beating heart.
Yusra Mardini

Simply put, to paint a refugee as a simple opportunists is grotesque. The path of many Syrian refugees (not unlike the path of many North Africans), is to trek across unwelcoming countries on foot, sleeping in the open until they reach unsuitable boats which launch into the open sea. Many refugees can't swim and many have young children and babies in tow. If they arrive at the other side (Europe) the journey is not over. More trekking, open sleeping, violence, discrimination and the purgatory of refugee camps awaits them. These desperate acts, against incredible odds are not seeking a nicer house or simply a higher standard of living, they are seeking refuge.

refuge: shelter or protection from danger or trouble
a place that provides shelter or protection**

This is the path of Yusra Mardini. Of the 10 members on the Olympic Refugee Team 8 are African and 2 are Syrian.There does not seem to be numerous feel-good stories coming out of the refugee team at this year's Olympic Games - rather, just the one. The member of the team most celebrated by the press is 18 year old Syrian refugee, Yusra Mardini. She is the youngest, the most photogenic and the fairest of them all. That is, she is easily the most palatable to the press and she has an amazing story that will tug at your heartstrings.

While fleeing violence in her home country of Syria, Mardini, her sister and another woman were forced into the open waters of the Aegean Sea to kick-push a boat full of desperate refugees for 3 hours to the shores of Greece after the motor on their tiny, over-packed dingy failed.
“Damascus became increasingly unstable and Mardini and her sister Sarah eventually left Syria, travelling through Lebanon and Turkey before trying to reach Greece. ...After Lesbos, Mardini and Sarah traveled through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria before arriving at their final destination: Germany.”

But as of March, 2016 refugees landing in Greece will be sent back to Turkey, "In return for taking back refugees, Turkey can expect “re-energised” talks on its EU membership, with the promise of negotiations on one policy area to be opened before July. The EU has also agreed to speed up the disbursement of €3bn (£2.3bn) intended to help Syrian refugees in Turkey..." Sourced from the Guardian "EU strikes deal with Turkey to send back refugees"
The richest countries in the world have accepted the least refugees. And some, like the US, moan the loudest: USA - “More than half the nation's governors say Syrian refugees not welcome." In fact, both the U.S. and Germany have both grossly inflated the number of refugees they are willing to take - or have taken in and the press seems happy to report these falsehoods. By April, the U.S. had accepted a bit over 800 and not the 10,000 promised, (though they claim to have now hit the magic number). Also, from 2011 to 2014, Germany received around 460,000 asylum seekers in total, from all countries. It expects to receive 800,000 in 2015, again from all countries (not just Syria), and a significant proportion of these will not be given refugee status.

So how can one square the celebration of the Olympic Refugee Team with this wave of xenophobia and a false framework which clearly displays the disingenuous nature and utter lack of compassion in the (mostly Christian) first world through language, rhetoric, policy and action?
We can't.
Even one of the most Nationalist organizations in the world - the Olympics, recognizes the dire situation of refugees in the world today and found a place for them. They even called them by their true name "refugees".
Lucky for the young hero, Ms. Mardini that she didn’t swim up the shores of Greece just a few months later, after the deal was struck to send them back. Back to Turkey, not their home country, or even one in which they share a language or culture, just one in close proximity to the one in which they fled. A country with more to gain by taking them in than in denying them. A country willing to shelter them long enough to utilize them as a political pawn to gain access to the EU, as well as, a healthy cash settlement to the tune of 3 billion USD. But what is her status? Does being an Olympic athlete qualify one for asylum? How about being a media darling? It didn't help Samia Omar, an Olympic sprinter from Somalia who drowned in the Mediterranean on a similar journey to Ms. Mardini’s. Skill, talent and pure determination were not enough to keep her head above water as she waited for rescue in the choppy Mediterranean waters after the boat she was on failed. It did not save her from an unceremonious burial at sea. She became another faceless, nameless ‘migrant’ whose bodies are clogging the waterway from North Africa to Italy and also Turkey to Greece.
The international press is failing these people in their representation the same way the worldwide public is doing them a disservice in their lazy interpretation and utter lack of even the most basic understanding of the conflicts, as well as, the immigration process in their own countries. All the while wildly inflating the actual threat to their own lives and way of life. So ask yourself, who is a migrant and who is a refugee?

dignity: the quality of being worthy of honor or respect

luck: the things that happen to a person because of chance: the accidental way things happen without being planned.

Wanting dignity and a better life is not a crime. These 'migrant boats' are filled with families and the professionals, professors, authors, scientists, politicians and Olympic athletes of tomorrow. In other words, people just like you. If you can’t fathom being in a situation like this, consider yourself lucky. But your luck is not some sort of birthright and it not something you earned. You might be lucky to be protected by your skin color, the country printed on your passport or money in the bank, but none of these things make you better or more deserving of dignity, or the right to a productive and fulfilling life for yourself, or that of your children. It doesn’t make you more deserving of your still-beating heart.

*watch this video from February where Myriam Francois explains the problem in terms of aid and politics - if you have a really short attention span you can skip to 2:50

**all definitions sourced from

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