On Being Stuck: A Personal Reflection on Mobility Inequality
My job has me traveling a lot. I’ve spent 5 of the past 10 months of this year living abroad within 3 different continents. Over the past three weeks alone, I have flown through Albuquerque, Denver, Austin, Detroit, Toronto, London, Istanbul, Gaziantep, Amsterdam, Reykjavik, and Washington D.C. And while I certainly depend on today’s methods of transportation, I have only recently begun appreciating the concept of free movement.
My job title is long and exhausting - Maternal and Child Health Emergency Response Officer – but in essence I am the “travel guy” for my organization, Circle of Health International (COHI). I make sure that we are well informed + represented in the field and that our programs and volunteers get the support they need. COHI is an Austin-based nonprofit that provides maternal and female reproductive health care for women and children in crisis settings by sending clinical volunteers, delivering medical supplies, and facilitating capacity training events. It’s a terrific organization, check it out: cohintl.org
Recently, COHI has been focusing its efforts on the current European refugee crisis that started with a series of volunteer placements in Lesvos, Greece throughout this past winter. I myself was sent there for 6 weeks where I worked intimately with folks and families from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Morocco. Despite speaking a variety of languages, baring myriad ethnicities, and sharing diverse cultures, they all had one at least one thing in common: they were stuck. At this time, Greece’s northern border was on the cusp of closing completely and the fateful EU-Turkey agreement was just weeks away. After successfully braving the Aegean crossing from Turkey to Lesvos on overcrowded dinghies, these travelers would learn that they had reached the end of the road.
A friend of mine from Morocco – a demographic whom humanitarians feel least sympathetic toward due to the absence of war or conflict in their home country – passed his languishing time on the island by volunteering for his fellow migrants and refugees. When I asked him where he planned on going now that Moroccans were not allowed past the border, he sighed, “somewhere better. I know I will get there, it just might take a very long time…”
Consider your fondest experience with an airline delay. Whether it be a night spent in Terminal B following a blizzard or 9 hours next to the Delta service desk due to an airplane malfunction, there is a feeling of frustration and hopelessness that accompanies immobility. Now, to equate these inconveniences to the strife of refugees attempting to enter Europe is a hefty oversimplification but for most of us today in the Western world, this is the closest we come to experiencing anything similar.
It was only until recently when I encountered a flight delay of my own that has my mind stuck on this issue. After several months of planning and coordinating, I was sent to Gaziantep, Turkey on the assignment of overseeing a technical training workshop that COHI was facilitating for Syrian midwives. Under the guidance of one brilliant Palestinian maternal health instructor, 7 midwives were able to master postpartum hemorrhage and neonatal resuscitation procedures, and then return home to Syria where they could put those new skills to use. Afterward, we all patted ourselves on the back and said our goodbyes as I prepared to return back home to the USA.
It was the night of July 15th and I was packing my things as I awaited my 3:30am flight out of Antep. Of course, most of us know what happens next. A simple visit to the Huffington Post homepage informed me that Turkey was in the midst of an attempted military coup and that Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport – the very place I planned on flying out of later that morning – was currently occupied by the counter-establishment’s forces. The rest of the night was filled with sounds of yelling, sirens and gunfire.
Even after the coup was overturned, flights to the United States, Canada, Switzerland, Germany and France all remained discontinued for 6 days following the event. The U.S embassy urged me to stay ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ which meant I was confined to my hotel room until I could find a way home. Each day I would attempt to contact airlines and airports with the hopes of finding a new flight but no one would answer the phone.
Here’s the part where I wish I could say I handled everything like a champ. That I kept my composure and remained patient but sadly I did not. There was a moment – when I had finally gotten a Turkish airlines representative on the phone only to have her hang up on me – that began to scream savagely at the wall in my room. It was a defeating time, a lonely time, a 4 day test of my psyche. And while on paper, it really seems quite mild, it was undeniably difficult for me to handle.
Ultimately, I was able to catch a plane to Holland where I was then able to book passage home through Reykjavik. Things worked out for me - as they often do for most Americans traveling abroad. And while circumstances grew hairy at times, I was never in any real danger. My colleague, Omar, a Syrian coordinator for Human Appeal International in Turkey, laughed when I spoke grimly about the attempted coup. “That was nothing. Only the media stirring things up. And besides, only 60 people were killed and they were all soldiers!” To some that sounds callous but given that Omar was locked up by the Assad regime in Syria and nearly disappeared, I trusted his take on the matter.
After spending so much time lamenting how difficult to was to escape Turkey’s conflict, now I can only scoff at how easy it was. Sure there were some complications along the way but I was able to leave Gaziantep – a city located just 95 kilometers from Aleppo, containing tens of thousands of displaced Syrians – by simply hopping on a plane and flying to the very place they had been trying to reach for years.
Only until I became stuck, did I realize how little I knew about being trapped. And while I doubt I will ever truly understand, at least now it is clear how incomprehensible the pain of a refugee really is.