A man stood at the railway station with a placard declaring himself to be a refugee from Syria, a woman and child sat on the floor beside him. Perhaps he was Syrian, perhaps his home was somewhere very different, whatever his origin, to stand begging at a Paris station cannot be an easy option. What must his life be like for he and his family to be there, to watch as countless people stream by, ignoring their pleas for existence?
Thinking of the man took me back to a moment fifteen years ago, in a taxi, in a Manila traffic jam, on a Thursday evening. A colleague and I were on the way back to the airport, knowing that we would be in Dublin the following lunchtime, I tried to imagine what it was like for those who couldn’t get on a plane and fly to Europe.
What was it like to be trapped in the life of the man who was trying to make a few pesos selling peanuts to passing motorists? What was it like to be one of the family who were living under one of the highway flyovers? What was it like to be living in a house made from bamboo and woven leaves in one of the many villages we had visited? When these people watch a European pass by, what thoughts do they have? Their whole life, to us, is an unknowable experience.
What must it be like to be a child in sub-Saharan Africa. Five times, I have travelled to Rwanda, and the children have not changed. “Muzungu, muzungu,” they shout as we pass: “whites, whites,” with the implication, “rich people, rich people.”
Kids in second hand European clothes, running barefoot at the roadside, watch as people from another world pass by in a four wheel drive pick up. What were their lives like in their mud brick houses? How far did they walk to fetch water each morning? When they went to school, what lessons did they learn?
Whether it’s a man at Chatelet-Les Halles station, street dwellers in Manila, or children in Africa, it is impossible to stand in their places; impossible to unknow what we know. We know we have comfortable homes to which to return. We know we have our treasured possessions. We know we have our friends or family to turn to in times that are dark.
There are few people in our community who would contemplate turning away from all we have and willingly facing the nothingness. There are few people who would put themselves into a situation where there was no way out. It’s impossible to let go of all the things that are important, to stand alone and vulnerable in a foreign, place; to imagine ourselves with nothing.
Perhaps the man was not really from Syria, perhaps it was a con, but how desperate must one be to stand and plea for help? What must life look like through his eyes?