Nushin Arbabzadah: Refugees don't matter, that's why they are here

From a speech by the Gates Scholar at Pembroke College, Cambridge, given as part of the Brian Riley Declamation Prize
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The Independent Online

I first encountered European culture as a young refugee from Afghanistan. But it was not for the solid sounds of the German language that I came to Europe. Nor was it for the melodies of the Spanish that I later learned, nor the soft roundness of French vowels. I came to Europe for safety. Culture was a luxury that came later.

I first encountered European culture as a young refugee from Afghanistan. But it was not for the solid sounds of the German language that I came to Europe. Nor was it for the melodies of the Spanish that I later learned, nor the soft roundness of French vowels. I came to Europe for safety. Culture was a luxury that came later.

Despite the profusion of newspaper articles and television bulletins on the subject, most people in the West do not understand refugees. Despite their powerlessness – perhaps because of it – the refugee's presence is powerful. In the supermarket queue; at the children's school; on the local bus. It reaches your body; it strikes something primal. The refugee can either turn your stomach, or compress your heart with compassion.

Webster's dictionary will tell you that the refugee is simply someone "who flees to a foreign country". The refugee is someone escaping "danger or persecution in his own country". If you want to know why, Webster's will tell you: "because of his race, religion or political beliefs".

The notion, as we have seen, implies a certain importance. It implies political consciousness; religious awareness; individuality. Yet the ordinary refugee – the grandmother from Bosnia, the teenager from Rwanda, the father from Sri Lanka – is targeted simply because he or she was there, trapped in a "zone of conflict", caught in a war which they did not want or understand. They are simply human beings, not especially political, not overly religious, not aware of the deadly significance of their "race". This very ordinariness is so obvious that soon after their arrival in Europe, their applications are often turned down; ordinary people can all too easily seem like pretenders; "bogus", to use the phraseology of the day. Surely a real refugee should look like a hero, a good guy. But conflict does not bring heroism – this is the stuff of cinema. It brings misery, and hopelessness. When a father cannot protect his wife and children, he doesn't feel heroic; he feels ashamed, less than a real man. No wonder the refugee looks guilty queuing for his visa. Any psychiatrist will tell you – it is always the losers who bear the guilt.

In 2001, nobody specifically targeted the world's 21.8 million refugees because of who each was – though this individual persecution is what a refugee must prove. On the contrary, most of them were targeted because of their sheer lack of importance. They were targeted because they did not matter. They were just a part of the map; they just, well, got in the way. What always matters is other, more important issues, causes such as the free market versus communism, the ethnic homogeneity of a given region, or more recently, the civilised world against the enemies of freedom.

In the media, refugees are portrayed as a new phenomenon; as the latest of many dangers spreading from Europe. But in reality there were always movements of people seeking safety on foreign soil. Without the Saxons escaping the Huns in Central Europe, the French Huguenots fleeing from Catholic persecution, Jews escaping Nazis or later Ugandan Indians and Bangladeshis fleeing their own distant tyrannies, England would not be recognisable to us today.

As a young refugee in Germany, I first felt isolated, uprooted. But later I found out that as a refugee I was part of a grand and international tradition. Many of the greatest figures of the 20th century were refugees. Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud; Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Thomas Mann; Rudolf Nureyev and Pablo Picasso. Not bad company for a kid from Kabul.

We all know about the great cultural and scientific contributions of exiles in England. But what we don't realise is that there is no difference between those stories – of Karl Marx, Victor Hugo, Voltaire – and those of refugees in the present. For today's refugees in Europe are both the cost, and the reward, of globalisation.

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