Opinion: Showing hospitality to strangers


Published: 07-02-2023 6:00 AM

Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.

‘A person can only be born in one place,” Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote. “However, he may die several times elsewhere: in the exiles and prisons, and in a homeland transformed by the occupation and oppression into a nightmare.”

I wrote, in 2015, about a three-year-old Kurdish Syrian boy, Alan Shenu, who along with his mother and five-year-old brother, died from drowning along an Aegean beach while trying to escape from Syria.

I remember thinking at the time, as I looked at photos of Alan’s lifeless body face down at water’s edge, of my daughter, perhaps also at age three, fast asleep on a blanket on Hampton’s Plaice Cove beach, trusting in her family, in the world, to shelter her.

Of picturing grandchildren, carefree in the Mediterranean and Atlantic, knowing intuitively that loved ones, ready to protect and shelter them, are just steps away.

So, on June 17, when I first read news reports about the sinking of a fishing vessel in the Mediterranean, a boat that might normally hold 400 that was criminally overloaded with 800 refugees, I recognized those freedom-seekers.

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Of the 800 people aboard only about 100 were rescued.

I knew they weren’t terrorists or ne’er-do-wells out for a joy ride. I knew that they were mostly Afghan, Egyptian, Syrian, Palestinian, and Pakistani sojourners grown so frightened and desperate at home — oppressed, exploited, unemployed, hungry — that they would do anything to try and liberate themselves and their families.

I felt they were related to me and to the more than 1,200 people who died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2022 trying to find asylum and opportunity in Western Europe, related to the almost 25,000 who have died in those waters since 2014, because I knew the lands they were fleeing well.

I knew most knew they had little opportunity in their native lands and had sacrificed nearly everything, some selling their homes and all their livestock, to be on that boat.

I felt I knew them because in 1908 my father, at age nine, lived below decks for weeks when he was sent by his family to America to start a new life.

Baba made it, via Ellis Island, for which his family and their families will be eternally grateful.

I didn’t know the five people who died in a “catastrophic implosion” on board the Titan submersible during a sight-seeing dive to look at Titanic wreckage.

They had little to do with me.

As we mourn the loss of all human life — we belong to God and to God we will return — it’s important, I believe, not only to understand what happened but to try to distinguish and understand the disparate responses that followed.

The Titan tragedy was one of hubris and choice.

The fishing boat tragedy was a criminal enterprise that exploited the weak and vulnerable.

Aboard the Titan were men of wealth and public stature who appear to have disregarded science for adventure.

People don’t leave their homes, families and culture on a lark. Aboard the fishing boat were 800 people who believed there was no future for themselves and their families in dysfunctional states: states where the overweening arrogance of American and Western nations, complicit with authoritarian and dictatorial regimes, had helped to create oppressive and inhumane conditions.

Was Paula Abdul, Shakira or Gigi Hadid aboard that vessel? Might there have been Steve Job’s brother or Khaled Hosseini’s sister? Could it have been transporting Salman Rushdie’s brother or Danny Thomas’ nephew?

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares,” Hebrews 13:2. NRSV

I know them all.

Could it have been transporting the brilliant Warsan Shire who, born in Kenya to Somali parents, first caught my attention in 2016 when her poetry was adapted for Beyoncé’s album, Lemonade.

Could Warsan Shire, in her poem “Home,” have been writing of my fellow passengers when she penned:

“you have to understand, / that no one puts their children in a boat / unless the water is safer than the land”

or wrote:

“i want to go home, but home is the mouth of a shark / home is the barrel of the gun / and no one would leave home / unless home chased you to the shore / unless home tells you to / leave what you could not behind / even if it was human.”

Even if it is human.