The majority of books and movies about refugees are usually bad. Often they are self-serving, trite, or preachy. Most are too heart-felt with unrealistic characters. Refugees are usually helpless victims and emergency relief workers are do-gooders with overflowing emotions. During a real refugee crisis, particularly if it is related to war, there is usually no time to play out a Hollywood scene. Only when you are away from the trouble do you begin to have a sense of what you have experienced and it normally comes to you in nightmares or the throes of heavy drinking or some drug.
Despite what you see on the news, there is nothing “truthful'” or even obvious about refugee situations. In my experience, both refugees and emergency relief workers are only typical people caught inside a mysterious, giant political threshing machine that slices and crushes bodies. Nothing more and nobody knows what to do. Most people become overly stressed and try to either save or cover their asses. Absurdity, chaos, madness, and avoidance are the main points when things start to go bad. Outcomes are highly dependent upon shifting ground and if you are a refugee worker: “The worst decision you ever made in the morning will be the best thing you ever did by nightfall.” Everything depends upon the fates.
It gets worse. The refugee population is not only consists of women, children, and the old who are all desperate for help, but also cold-blooded criminals. Pete, my hellfire Christian buddy used to say, “If it wasn’t for the refugees, this place would be pretty nice.” It may come as a surprise, but some refugees are total bastards. Usually they are men in ragtag armies who enjoy killing their fellow refugees for political and tribal reasons. Sometimes they are smooth, well-educated political types who want to steal and to kill just enough before anyone notices. Yet, refugee workers must make deals with them and sort things out as best they can. Emergency relief volunteers can also be problematic. Most of them are great, particularly the locals without whom relief activities are impossible, but a small percent of the others, both expats and nationals, are drug addicts and drunks, thieves and murderers, incompetent, and either partly or completely insane.
In figuring out what kind of refugee book I wanted to write, I quickly rejected a “truthful book,” and eventually settled upon writing honestly. There is a difference between truth and honesty. Truth is very hard to pin down and can be debated forever, but honesty comes from feelings: “I don’t know what the truth is about that guy, but honestly, I have a bad feeling.”
Honesty is not so much about facts, but rather how one subjectively sees reality: something that happens every time you open your eyes. Anybody can tell their version of the truth, and it is usually self-serving, but being honest means you open yourself up to looking bad. In my career, I can recall occasions where I slightly shaded events to remove myself from blame or maybe get some bastard in trouble. If there are a thousand parts to a story and you leave out three, does it matter? In the main the story is “true enough,” but it is not honest. Why did I do it? Maybe it was a survival reaction. Maybe it had to do with years of working in areas without law or the usual social conventions found in nations without war. Could it have been all those nights waking up and not knowing where I was? When everyone is sick and dying or shot to shit, ethical rules seem less important, in fact, they are totally unimportant. A word here or there could have dire consequences for someone. Twisting things to your advantage or the disadvantage of others has a certain internal feeling. I know what it feels like and I never much liked it, but then it was part of working in an insecure area. I finally accepted it and just went on…we must go on.
Honesty often flies into the face of the official story which is normally the way an agency or leader wants to portray their actions and policies. Politicians are big truth tellers, since their longevity depends on how well they speak the truth. People often know what they hear is bullshit, but in most countries there is little one can do except bear the lies called truth. There are a billion truths in a refugee situation, but if you are honest, then you can only tell it one way: your way. In short, I don’t claim the truth in my words, but I will strongly affirm I have tried to be honest.