Paris has gifted me with many stories: stories of strange characters on the metro, stories of miscommunication and discovery, of street performers and chateaus and revelry.
There is one story, however, that is none of these things. It is not whimsical nor amusing. It is both terribly sad and extremely inspiring, and above all, demands to be told.
It is the story of a guy called Rudi. I met him at a gathering of couch-surfers, on a bridge over the Seine: there was cheap wine and loud music and everyone was swapping “countries-of-origin” and “what-do-you-study” and “what-brings-you-to-Paris”. Unlike most visitors to the city of lights, however, Rudi didn’t choose to come to Paris: it chose him.
You see, Rudi is a refugee from Syria.
From the moment he was came into this world, he has been discriminated against. When he was born, his father had to bribe the registrar to put the Kurdish name “Rudi” on his birth certificate, because Kurdish words are banned. When an unassuming events page entitled “Syrian Revolution” appeared on Facebook, Rudi and his friends, already participating in peaceful protests in support of the revolutions in Libya and Egypt, took up the cause of Syrian freedom. Only a couple of exams from the end of his law degree, Rudi began filming demonstrations and government atrocities which he linked to contacts in Reuters and Al Jazeera. He was not permitted to finish his studies.
Since the beginning of the revolution, he has been imprisoned twice. The second time he was tortured with electric shocks and beaten. He fled to Jordan but after protesting against the appalling conditions under which Syrian refugees lived, he was given a week to get out. Finally, he made contact with the French Ambassador in Syria, who agreed to give him asylum in France.
Now, in Paris, he works tirelessly at a radio station broadcasting news to Syria, and obsessively checks Facebook and Twitter for news of his family and friends. His Facebook profile picture is of his 16-year-old brother, who is in custody in Syria for revolutionary activities, and for his connections to Rudi. He has been in custody for over 60 days, and there is no foreseeable end to his imprisonment.
Despite all the horror stories Rudi told me, the thing that had tears running down my face was not about hate or fear or death. He said to me, at the tail end of a long and rambling discussion:
“When they tortured me, with electricity, I thought of my sister’s son. I thought of him coming to me, giving me a hug, saying “I love you”. I thought of it every day I was in prison. It made me strong.”
I’ve worked in immigration. I’ve spent hours dispassionately and analytically reading about bombings and beheadings. I’ve studied refugee politics and watched documentaries, but until now I have never looked into the face of a refugee and heard them say “my brother” “my friends” followed by words like “shot” “arrested” “missing”. It reaches inside you in a way news articles and pixelated Youtube footage cannot. It forces you to see, not a concept like ‘refugee’ or a ‘revolutionary’, but a person not that dissimilar from yourself. It forces you to replace their brothers with your brothers, their friends with your friends.
I can see why the Australian government wants refugees as far away from Australian shores as possible. At a distance, the issue of asylum seekers and refugees is someone else’s story, someone else’s problem. On an island of political alienation, refugees are an amorphous group of pitiable and incomprehensible creatures that are quickly dispelled from your mind by the mortgage or the groceries or the argument you just had with your spouse.
Now, I know that this issue is fraught with emotion, and too often facts are lost, facts like Australia’s international obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, facts like the small number of asylum seekers who come to Australia compared to other countries, facts like 80-90% of boat arrivals are found to be genuine refugees. Facts such as the minuscule cost of community processing as opposed to the ethical and financial black hole that is offshore processing.
The facts of Rudi’s life, and the lives of people in conflict situations around the world, ARE emotional, and I feel we should have emotional responses to them, in conjunction with calm appraisal of options. We may not want to be close to the heat of their pain and struggle, but maybe if we were we would have a greater interest in fighting the fire.
On the legality of seeking asylum:
On the costs of detention:
The stories of others: