Editors’ note: This article is the third in a series on books by or about refugees.
Hashem al-Souki, the main protagonist in Patrick Kingsley’s The New Odyssey: The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis, is a good example of what a Syrian can endure for the sake of his family.
Al-Souki pleads with his father to approve his decision to leave Syria. “It’s unbearable here,” he says. “I have to go—not for me, but for my children and my wife.” Soon after that, in June of 2013, al-Souki and his family joined the thousands of people fleeing the war in Syria. They moved from Syria to Jordan, and then to Egypt. From there, al-Souki crossed the Mediterranean to Italy alone and traveled through France, Germany and Denmark. Finally settled in Sweden, he found good educational opportunities for his three sons and the prospect of a better future for his family. His family only recently joined him, after they spent several years apart.
Patrick Kingsley, The Guardian newspaper’s first migration correspondent (he now works for The New York Times), followed and documented al-Souki’s journey, alongside those of many other immigrants. He traveled to 17 countries, from Libya, Niger, Egypt and Turkey to Greece, Sweden and Italy, and spoke not only to refugees and migrants, but also to smugglers, coast guard officers, rescuers, activists, volunteers and officials, to create a 360-degree story about the refugee crisis.
Why do thousands of refugees risk their lives in “floating coffins?” Kingsley asked hundreds of refugees this question. Among the answers was that of an Eritrean doctor, who told him: “Because Eritrea is so much worse, and because neighboring countries like Sudan—where Eritreans have few rights and run the risk of being deported—aren’t much better.”
Another answer came from Abu Jana, 35, a Syrian former army officer. He fled to Egypt in the early days of the 2011 uprising, after he refused to kill unarmed protesters. Later, when his identification card expired, the Egyptian authorities threatened to send him back to Syria. He became a migrant, he said, “Because we trust God’s mercy more than the mercy of people here.”
In 2015, the number of illegal border crossing on the Eastern Mediterranean reached 888,386, according to Frontex, the European border and coast guard agency. By then, the conflict in Syria had displaced 12 million people (7.6 million internally and 4.1 million refugees), creating the largest wave of refugees to hit Europe since World War II.
Why did the drastic increase in arrivals to Europe occur four years after the Syrian war started? Kingsley answers this question, writing: “If your children haven’t been to school in several years, and if your home was destroyed in 2012, but it’s still not safe to return to rebuild it, it’s time for you to leave.”
Kingsley says that because he was able to focus his work completely on migration in Europe, he was able to visit almost all of the main way stations on the migration trails through the Middle East and North Africa on the way to Europe. This gave him an in-depth view of what was going on—and he felt it was important to collect all of his reporting and analysis in a single book.
“A lot of the news reports we read only tell one small aspect of the refugee crisis,” Kingsley said in an interview.
The New Odyssey seems to resemble a refugee boat, containing many diverse voices. One of those is a Berber law-school graduate who became a smuggler in Libya. Another is Adam, a 15-year-old Eritrean boy who was forced by smugglers to stand for 12 hours a day in the blazing Libyan sun, so that his family would pay a ransom.
And there is Hashem al-Souki, the Syrian civil servant who was living happily with his family, listening to Fayrouz on his way to work, and drinking tea under an apricot tree on weekends until the war destroyed his home and forced him to leave.
The refugees tell Kingsley that fleeing the war was just the first step on a long, tough road that included experiences of suffering before, during and after crossing the Mediterranean. The book tells of refugees robbed at sea and at the borders of Balkan countries, and sneaking across borders to avoid being arrested and put into camps. In one incident described in the book, refugees are locked in a stadium without food or water for 24 hours.
The author argues that the reason for the crisis was not only the increase in the number of refugees, but also the restrictions imposed by neighboring countries: refusal to give refugees work permits and restrictions on their access to health care and education. Europe managed to resettle between 12 and 14 million Europeans after World War II, and Western countries managed to settle 1.3 million people after the Indochinese war. Why then, Kingsley asks, is the current refugee crisis so hard to manage?