I didn’t even know the Museum of Modern Art was hosting a refugee exhibit until I found myself outside the gallery, reading about it and tearing up. For some months, refugees have been on my heart and mind. I’m a news junkie who reads the New York Times daily and a bleeding heart whose soul has been ripped to shreds by the stories coming from Syria. But even reading about the atrocity almost daily, there’s a distance between me and the stories, not just the physical oceans that separate us but the distance of reality.
I can imagine the horrors; I cannot truly comprehend what it must be like to watch your city disintegrate, to feel the pang of hunger and know it won’t soon be sated, to be so desperate you leave your beloved home for a hostile land in the hopes of finding shelter.
Shelter was a word the exhibit emphasized, saying at one point that it’s both noun and concept to refugees; both a concrete thing to seek after — the physical shelter of a home or a roof to protect from the elements — and an ethereal hope — the idea of safety and a new place where you can find belonging and rest.
Shelter. It’s one of the basic tenets, one of the first things humans seek. Without it, we cannot create, cannot focus on culture or anything, really, other than our physical needs. And it’s the first thing refugees have lost.
The millions of displaced humans — humans, men and women and children like you and I except with a different background — who hunger and thirst and fight valiantly for shelter and hope are in need of so much.
A part of the exhibit displayed simple provisions — school supplies and “creativity kits” given to children. Because they don’t have tools for an education but desire it greatly.
As a child, I had ready access to an education. It wasn’t perfect, it was in a language other than my mother tongue and I was often mocked for being different — an American who found herself in Italy.
But. But I found friends, I learned things and I was fed and educated, and I didn’t have to struggle or strive to make any of those things come true. I didn’t have to make use of a “school in a box,” a kit donated by people luckier than I.
And the honest truth is that portion of the exhibit is the least harrowing.
The most harrowing — the part that sticks with me like a leech on my brain, inhaling my thoughts and overtaking my consciousness, is the wall of death.
It’s an entire wall filled with small-font details of those who have died in their search for shelter. Most of the “name” columns are filled with those two letters seen above, “N.N.”, “no name.” Sometimes we know the age or gender of the deceased. Sometimes, even that is unclear.
That’s the part that rips into your soul and leaves a crevice. Because it just makes it so clear the horrors.
These are people on this wall. Men, women and children the same as you and I. They were born in a home in a city that was alive and vibrant. They had hopes and dreams — to be a doctor, a philosopher, a writer. To change the world, to make a name for themselves and leave a mark.
Instead, they got war. They got devastation. They got death in icy waters as their migrant ship capsized, they froze to death as stowaways in planes, they suffocated in the back of a cramped truck in Austria.
They left their homes to find a life, and what they got was death.
And not just one or two of them; hundreds, thousands of people. And the ones who do survive the journey, whose names aren’t on the wall? The lucky ones are given asylum and forced to start anew in a foreign country where many citizens and political leaders hate them for no other reason than their foreignness.
The unlucky ones end up in refugee camps.
This picture on the floor is a sprawling illustration of “refugee republic,” a place where humans are shunted together like cattle. It’s horrifying. It’s saddening.
It’s a call to action.
Refugees. Migrants. Foreigners. Syrians. Muslims. These are words that are thrown around to describe the floods leaving their homes. I choose another word.
I choose person. Human. Man. Woman. Like you, like me. If I had been born in a different family, a different hemisphere — it would have been me.
We must have compassion and empathy to understand and love these people.
We must do something.
Donate, money or clothes or shelter. Volunteer, sorting donations in a warehouse or actively working in a refugee camp. Pray, if you believe in prayer. Educate yourself and others on what’s going on. Petition your governments to do something.
It could have been your child, drowning in the sea, your father suffocating in a truck. It could have been me. It could have been you.