A Writer’s Insight: Arianne Zwartjes

Arianne Zwartjes’s essay “These Dark Skies: Seeking Refuge on Europe’s Shores” appears in the winter 2017 issue of The Southern Review. Hear Arianne read an excerpt of the essay in our audio gallery and read more about her thoughts on proximity, the challenges of volunteerism, and where to find hope under “dark skies” below. The entire essay is also available online at Catapult.co.

Megan Feifer: You make an interesting point about the relationship between proximity and care when it comes to the U.S. media and world issues. In particular, you use the term “geographic isolation” to describe the way in which “news from other parts of the world … unspool[s] in a distant reality.” Can you expand on this?

Arianne Zwartjes: In the summer of 2014, I visited Cyprus and Turkey. This was during the time that Israel was unleashing a really brutal bombardment of Gaza, in retaliation for the Israeli settlement teenagers that had been killed. And while we were in Cyprus—where my spouse had lived for seven years prior to us meeting—we stayed with friends, we went to the beach, we ate Lebanese meze . . . and I just kept feeling, so potently, this sense of proximity to what we were seeing on the news, what was happening in Gaza. We were eating the same foods, listening to the same music. The same sea we were swimming in—only 130 miles away was Beirut; Gaza was only 240 miles away. That’s barely more than driving from NYC to Boston, or LA to San Diego. And there I was, drinking a beer on the beach, while across just a little bit of sea, people were getting bombarded, their homes and schools and hospitals flattened. Those four little boys were killed on the beach, playing soccer, by an Israeli airstrike. And then when I returned to the U.S., the news media here was barely showing any images of what was happening in Gaza, barely covering it, in contrast to the European and Middle Eastern channels we’d watched while abroad. Most people here seemed hardly aware it was happening. Partly because it’s geographically far away, and partly because of our relationship to Israel.

So that’s what I mean by proximity—I mean, the things that happen affect you directly, they feel close, they’re in the news regularly, you could hop in your car and drive to where they’re happening. Whereas here in the U.S., we have these vast oceans all around us, separating us from what’s happening, especially in the Middle East and the subcontinent—Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, these places seem so remote, so far away to most of us—but also from things like the refugee crisis in Greece, or the situation in Venezuela, or the ongoing brutality in South Sudan. And, of course, the U.S. itself is geographically huge—and all these factors amplify our tendency to look inward, rather than outward.


MF: As a reader, I appreciated your honesty and vulnerability around your personal struggle with the decision of how to get involved. You definitely make transparent all of the complications that arise around volunteering, including the savior complex, draining resources, and further complicating relations. In the essay, you worry about these “pitfalls” before your trip. What is your current take on volunteerism? Are these “pitfalls” avoidable, real, or can they be mitigated?

AZ: In college, I attended a four-year-abroad program called Friends World (now called LIU Global), and I wrote my senior thesis critiquing “international service learning” and exploring the pitfalls of that sort of volunteer work. Not that that makes me an expert, by any means, but this is something I’ve thought a lot about, and experienced some. I don’t think the pitfalls I mentioned are ever completely avoidable—the pitfalls, that is, of going from one culture into another to “try to help,” but especially of going from a wealthy country like the U.S. into another, less-wealthy country and culture, and doubly so as a white person who has that additional layer of having been told by a global culture that they are worthy, civilized, and merciful. But having a high degree of awareness of them, and what they look like, helps. Going into any volunteer situation with a high degree of forethought, research, carefulness, awareness—and with some actual skills to offer—helps.

Also, having a longer amount of time helps. I knew I didn’t have that extended time to offer, and one of my goals particularly in light of that was to try to write as much as I could about what I saw and experienced there, to try to raise awareness in the U.S.—to that end, I also recently published a piece in the social-justice-oriented Christian Century, and another piece on my Medium page about how to support refugees in the U.S., and I’m working on a book about seeing the refugee crisis unfold over the course of the year I was living in Europe. I also worked to try to continue supporting the Special Immigrant Visa applications of several people I met in the camp. And I’ve stayed in touch with the Greek solidarity-network folks who were coordinating most of the volunteer work at Malakasa. But it’s never enough. It’s never, ever enough.


MF: The essay is framed with the critical question of “Why is it, how is it, that we live in a world with so much meanness, so much ugliness, so much sadism and injustice and indifference?” Did you find the opposite of this in your work at Malakasa? Can you expand on an instance of compassion and hope you witnessed?

AZ: Honestly, the biggest basis for hopefulness that I witnessed was the incredible generosity of the Greek people, writ large, to the refugees. Bearing in mind that Greece has in many ways been brought to its knees by the German-led EU austerity policies over recent years . . . it was really impressive to watch, and read about, people’s generosity, from a place of—for some of them—having almost nothing for themselves. People who drove hours to bring food to Piraeus or to one of the camps; a woman who basically took a family into her own apartment so they could shower and do laundry; an elderly man who took the bus for several hours to deliver food he’d made to a camp. Fishermen on the islands who basically stopped working—and thus earning an income—to help rescue, day after day, people who would have otherwise drowned in their attempt to cross the Mediterranean and get to Greece.

At Malakasa, people from nearby communities would send medicines, clothing, whatever they could, with the volunteers. One day a woman showed up with a car full of apples from her orchard, and after a long period of arguing, they finally talked the soldiers in charge into letting them give the apples to people in the camp (the army was afraid someone from outside would try to poison the people in the camp, so they mostly didn’t allow outside food in). A couple of times while I was there, I saw Greek soldiers walk through the camp to find one of the volunteers, and pull them aside—they had brought food from home to give to people in the camp, but they didn’t want their superiors to see them doing it.


MF: I know you wrote this essay over the summer, and the landscape has shifted again. Has that changed your conclusions or commitments?

AZ: If anything, my conclusions are even more irrevocable: this is a political problem, with immense, enormous, tragic consequences on human lives. For the EU to decide, for instance, that Afghanistan is a “safe” country to return people to—this is unforgivable. There are already stories from Malakasa about people or families who chose to be returned to Afghanistan, rather than continue living in the very difficult conditions at the camp, in a state of total uncertainty about their future, who were killed upon their return. So many of the people in Malakasa, at least, were Hazara, a group that’s been directly targeted by the Taliban, and many others worked for the U.S. military, and had their lives or their families’ lives targeted for violence because of it. The U.S. has been slow to give out what are called Special Immigrant Visas (This American Life just produced a powerful episode about them) to Afghans and Iraqis who basically risked their lives—and those of their families—to work for us and beside us on the ground in those countries.

And in general, what you still have, in Greece, is a lot of people stagnating in camps as Europe very, very slowly begins to “process” them. I’m still in touch with the Greek people I met working in the camp, and they’re really frustrated with the situation. And then, of course, people continue to try to get to Europe through different routes.

To me, a significant part of this is about decades- or centuries-long foreign policies on the part of the U.S. and of Europe that have led to deeply intractable conflicts in places like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan. We’re now seeing the results of all that, and again, the human cost is so incredible, and so devastating.

And this is clearly a difficult time to make political change, as we are seeing the continued up-spiral of anti-refugee, white nationalist politics in the U.S. and in Europe, and a continuation of terrorist acts and the xenophobic reactivity they provoke.

The hope I hold on to right now is for the immense power of small communities of people all over the world—acting on a local level—to offer compassion and refuge to those who, in this moment, desperately need it.

Arianne Zwartjes is a poet and essayist who recently relocated from the Netherlands to the mountains of Colorado. She is the author of the lyric nonfiction project Detailing Trauma: A Poetic Anatomy, from which a selection won the 2011 Gulf Coast Prize for Nonfiction and was named a notable essay in the Best American Essays. Her writing can be found in Ninth Letter, Fourth Genre, and DIAGRAM.

Megan Feifer is a doctoral candidate in English with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University. She received her MA from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in English (Modern Studies). She is the cofounder and president of the Edwidge Danticat Society.

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