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NPR Arts & Life

'The New Odyssey' Allows Migrants Stories To Humanize The Crisis

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

By now, if you have followed the news at all, then you surely know about the worldwide migration crisis. You've heard the numbers. More than 1.4 million people have crossed the Mediterranean since 2014 alone fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. You've surely seen bits and pieces of the human story as well - the heartbreaking photo of the drowned Syrian boy, reports of shipwrecks that have killed hundreds of other migrants attempting the crossing. The sheer scale of the story makes it a difficult one to handle.

But Patrick Kingsley migration correspondent for the U.K. news outlet The Guardian decided to try in his new book "The New Odyssey," he takes readers through every step of the journey from homeland to safety in Europe, interviewing refugees, smugglers, aid workers and everybody else he can think of connected to the story. And Patrick Kingsley joins us now from NPR's bureau in New York City. Patrick Kingsley, thank you so much for speaking with us.

PATRICK KINGSLEY: Thanks for having me on the show.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, this is such a huge story, and you take on all aspects of it in the book, but mostly through the story of Hashem Alsouki, a Syrian who fled the civil war with his family. What is it about his story that drew you to him to kind of form the book around him?

KINGSLEY: Well, first of all, Hashem's such a sympathetic man. He's a civil servant. He's 40. He's got three kids, a lovely wife who's a teacher. He just feels like an every man. And it was stories like his that I felt were best able to humanize, to ground the vastness of what was going on.

MARTIN: Why did he decide - to tell people who haven't had a chance to read the book yet - why did he decide to make the crossing?

KINGSLEY: So he was living quite a quiet life before the revolution erupted in Syria in 2011, and then suddenly war overcame his country. And he got sucked into it. His home was destroyed in the fighting, and he was also arrested for several months for political reasons by the government in Syria. And he was tortured for several months, and - I'm sorry to say - electrocuted for days on end. And he then decided to leave with his family for Egypt which is where I met him, and life there was actually very tough as well because Hashem found it very hard to get jobs.

He was kidnapped by a man - came to be a Secret Service officer from the Egyptian regime. And it became very clear that this wasn't a safe place to be. And for that reason, he tried to go with his family by boat in one of these leaking boats that depart from the shores of North Africa towards Italy. And that was the reason I met him because he actually didn't make it onto that boat, and he was arrested with his family, his three young kids.

And had they got on that boat that they hoped would take them to Italy, they would have drowned because that boat went down a few days later killing - we think - between 300 and 500 people. And the staggering thing was that a few months later, Hashem said to me that he wanted to try this journey that had almost killed him the year before again. And that was the point when I asked if I might be able to follow him and chronicle his journey.

MARTIN: I need to - you to find a way to describe what part of that journey is like, and it's going to be difficult to do because there is a level of detail that you provide in the book about the exposure that people have to other people's bodily functions, for example, on these crossings that I'm not sure people are prepared to hear. So can you just give us - can you just find some way to describe what these crossings are actually like?

KINGSLEY: Well, the crossings are one of the most traumatic experiences that you could possibly imagine. Most people are crammed into relatively small fishing trawlers that are only meant to hold a crew of 15 or 20. But, instead, they're crammed with hundreds and hundreds of people at least three hundred and sometimes up to 700, and so no one even has enough floor space on the deck to stretch out and sleep.

There are so many people on the boat that it's very hard to reach the few toilets that there are onboard to put it lightly. And I would ask listeners to use their imaginations about what people have to do instead. And if they need to eat, you hope that the smugglers that you've paid - maybe $2,000 to make this journey - have enough food. But often, they don't. It's not like you're going on a luxury ocean cruise. This is one of the world's worst journeys that you can go on and second only I think to the journey that thousands of migrants make through the desert before they even reach the shores of the Mediterranean. And that's also described in my book.

MARTIN: Now, you combine the human stories here. You tell these stories focusing on Hashem and his family's journey and other journeys of people through the Sahara. But you also talk to - you also sort of describe some of the policy decisions that have led to this. Now, I think many people are of the view that this - there's really nothing that could have been done here to forestall this short of a political solution in Syria. It's your contention that that's just not true, am I right?

KINGSLEY: Well, my findings having interviewed hundreds of refugees is that had countries like the USA been more proactive about setting up resettlement programs, fewer people would have sought to move by irregular means. As I've said in the book, people move whether we like it or not. And the best way to respond to that is to try and manage that flow rather than to pretend that we can stop it entirely.

MARTIN: In the course of reporting the book, you know, you, you know, went to the airport, got on a plane and flew to a place that literally hundreds of people had died trying to make it there just as you did just in the course of an hour. And you were - I noted throughout the book that you were struck by this again and again, and I wonder if that experience of seeing people struggle so mightily to achieve freedom of movement that you were born to, I wonder if that's changed you in some way.

KINGSLEY: It just reminded me of how privileged I've been in my life and how privilege many of us who live in North America or in Europe are compared to people who are actually very similar to us but have drawn the short straw in the lottery where they were born. As you mentioned, I flew from - in one week, for example, Egypt to Turkey to Jordan to government-held Libya to rebel-held Libya to Tunisia and Malta, Italy, France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and then to the U.K.

And in that time in which I'd crossed nine or 10 borders, around 1,200 people drowned just trying to cross one. And it's when you realize things like that. And when you are on a border with people who cannot move any further because there is a fence, and you know that you can leave that space as soon as you like within five minutes if you need to. You just realize how the world is very unfair.

MARTIN: What - is it all right if we ask what happened to Hashem?

KINGSLEY: Hashem does survive the sea journey, but the book ends without resolution, I'd say, because his family was still stuck in Egypt waiting for their family reunification application to be processed. And I'm sorry to say that still is the case. They're still waiting nearly two years later.

MARTIN: Patrick Kingsley is migration correspondent for the U.K.-based news outlet The Guardian. His new book is called "The New Odyssey: The Story Of The Twenty-First Century Refugee Crisis." It's out now. Mr. Kingsley, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KINGSLEY: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.