I recently had the extraordinary and humbling experience of speaking with Ai Wei Wei, a global leader who uses his art, his intellect, and his heart to champion a more compassionate way forward for refugees. We had an incredible conversation, in which he compared the humanitarian crisis facing refugees to a flood.
The natural course of a flood is to flow, and we have two choices; the first is to try and stop it, to build a wall, letting the damage build until the dam eventually breaks, or we allow it to flow as water is meant to flow.
Ai Wei Wei suggested that people are the same; their natural state is to flow, seeking freedom. But that at a time where we are seeing a record number of people displaced and seeking refuge, we also have a record number of new walls and barriers being built.
We spoke about how the greatest barriers we face are, in fact, the barriers that we place within our own hearts and minds. Ai Wei Wei suggested to me that we want globalisation, we want freedom of movement, cheap labour, cheap goods, but we don’t want people to move freely. He asked, what are people who have had everything destroyed and have lost everything meant to do? Are we meant to literally push them into the sea? Are they meant to literally disappear? Of course not.
The problem is not refugees, the crisis is not the refugee crisis, the problem is us; our crisis of morality, our crisis of values, our inability at a time of extraordinary prosperity to welcome those in need of refuge and protection. We are being held hostage to the politics of self-interest, individualism, and cowardice, and the existence of our shared humanity relies on our ability to welcome and protect refugees.
What I took from this conversation was that on one hand we face an, often incredibly daunting, global humanitarian challenge. But at a local level we actually have great power to influence and change things.
It starts with us tearing down the borders in our hearts and minds.
It starts with us triumphing over the politics of cowardice, individualism, and selfishness that are rife in the world today.
It starts with us talking about our values of compassion and dignity, of saying welcome.
It starts by understanding that we cannot talk about humankind and humanity unless refugees are part of that narrative and part of that journey.
Ai Wei Wei emphasised the need to challenge the assumption that anyone seeking asylum is simply seeking greater prosperity. Yes, people are seeking a better life, but no one chooses to leave their home merely for economic reasons; no one actually wants to become a refugee. As such, we must welcome and protect refugees, because at its heart the right for people to seek asylum is a fundamental one.
At a time where we find the greatest movement and displacement of people, the answer is not to build more walls, but to build safer pathways, to share the moral responsibility and to take more refugees. Of course there are solutions, because just like the refugee crisis is man-made, so are the solutions available to it.
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