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come out and stay out

It’s been quiet here in recent weeks. I’ve been putting thoughts to paper, watching, listening, traveling.

Your hotel is in a very bad area. The worst in Athens, our cabbie warned. “A lot of Pakistani,” he said. “It’s like Chinatown.” This was the first lesson in insider/outsider politics. Vathi Square was the outside — full of foreigners and all the ills that came along with them. Drugs. Prostitution. Violence.

First up was a week-long exploration of Greece, bouncing from Samos to Patras before finally settling in Athens for a few days. I met Iranians, Somalis, Palestinians, Afghans, and others who were living in immigrant detention centers, in port-side camps, and in overcrowded urban slums. Most of them had paid a fortune to smugglers and traveled for months for the chance to cross Turkey into Europe. For the chance to get roughed up by Greek police, to live in squalor, to risk their lives sneaking aboard freight carriers and ferries bound for other countries where they would again be roughed up, live in squalor, risk their lives, etc.

That was early April. Later that month, I was on another plane, south-bound via Dubai.

As I write this, I’m snug in a plane seat, flying right over the neutral zone. If I cup my hands around my head and press my face close up to the window, I can see stars. A carpet of stars I’ve never seen from these skies. Gaza is to my right, somewhere in the unseeable distance. Soon, we’ll fly over the horn. Then over Mozambique. Hours from now I’ll walk the streets in Johannesburg.

In Jozi, the details were different, but the story was the same — the unwanted masses, come to escape tyranny and torture, to escape poverty and disease, searching for that better life that so many of us are promised exists out there for us. But as foreigners, they’re classified as makwerekwere, not to be trusted, and subject to intense systemic and personal discrimination. They have settled into makeshift township slums and taken over entire sections of downtown Johannesburg, en masse, because there’s less danger of getting attacked if you’re in a group. Mozambicans, Zimbabweans, Swazis, different faces for the same makwerekwere.

Of course, the xenophobic attacks of last year were not entirely about xenophobia, but that element cannot be denied.

When you mix xenophobia with the desperation of locals suffering under joblessness and economic crises — particularly, in the case of South Africans, a long-time lack of access to basic services and housing — you get a recipe for disaster. And by no means is this restricted to Europe and Africa. This piece in the Wall Street Journal, about Immigrant VS Local job-hunting tensions in Tennessee, gave me chills when I read it today.

I’ve been writing about my experiences in both Greece and South Africa, and can’t stop thinking about the wider implications, the parallels, the patterns. I also can’t help thinking of the kids I grew up with and their families. Had they stayed behind a little longer in Zimbabwe, in Somalia, in Afghanistan, this might have been their fate. Had their luck been a little off, they could have found themselves in the arms of the Greek Coast Guard, or on the receiving end of a frustrated township mob.

But of course, there’s still time for all that. All we need is one spark — and right now there is no spark more potent than that of economic hardship and the competition for work.


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