In 2016, the year Macedonia completely closed its borders to Syrian refugees, I met a young Palestinian man named Walid in a squalid army-run camp on the Greek island of Samos. I was writing a magazine story on the conditions in such camps following the deal that March between the EU and Turkey, which was intended to reduce the flow of migrants into Europe. Since media permits were not forthcoming, I ended up sneaking in through a hole in the fence. As I interviewed refugees, Walid approached me.
He had been at the camp for nine months, he said, sleeping in a tent inside a shipping container while the authorities figured out what to do with a Palestinian who had been born in northwest Syria. In that time, he’d seen a lot of reporters, but little change. “Do you think these articles will do anything?” he asked.
I paused to think about it. “No,” I answered. “But it’s important to keep a record.”
In the years that followed, I thought often about Walid’s question. Like Olivier Kugler, Don Brown, and Kate Evans, who have each published new books of comics journalism on the subject, I spent years covering the mass movement of human beings that is referred to in Europe as the “refugee crisis.” I was a Western journalist traveling freely on my powerful passport, paid to document the misery of people whose passports trapped them in poverty and war. I shared cigarettes with refugees in tents in Iraq, Lebanon, and Greece. I listened to little boys talk about the car bombs that killed their fathers. Mothers told me that drowning in the Mediterranean would be better than one more day rotting in this goddamn camp.
Like Kugler, Brown, and Evans, I sketched. We were some of the many artists who created encyclopedic oral histories, carefully illustrated, of the Syrians, Palestinians, Iraqis, and Afghans we had met. In our sketchbooks, we wrote down their memories, homes, ambitions, sufferings, former careers, and traumas. What did these documents add up to? I wondered. Our articles changed nothing. Why should we be the ones keeping the records?
In 2018, more nations than ever are shutting their borders and retreating into hostile nationalism. This applies not just to Brexit Britain or Trump America, but to the likes of India, which stripped the citizenship of four million Muslims; Myanmar, which has driven out over 700,000 Rohingya since August 2017; and Turkey, where border police just tortured a Syrian I know for attempting to seek refuge. Everywhere, immigrants are demonized. Activists are arrested. Demagogues promise walls. In times like this, chauvinists try to paint refugees as a plague, as terrorists. Stories are one way to fight back.
I don’t know if these books will do anything. But records need to be kept.
It doesn’t surprise me that Olivier Kugler’s Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees won this year’s European Design Awards Jury Prize. This recreated sketchbook is artistically masterful. Kugler, a German reportage artist, made illustrated interviews with refugees in Iraq, Greece, France, England, and Germany from 2013 to 2017. While he worked after the fact from photos he’d taken, each page has all the energy of an image drawn on the spot. Kugler’s line is astute, sinuous. He pulls the main characters out with color, but lets the background details overlap and congeal. He records the half-drunk Arabic coffee, the portable heater, the eloquent detritus of camp life. At their best, sketchbooks like Kugler’s make readers feel as if they are sitting beside the artist—watching the refugees climb onto the beach of the Greek island of Kos after crossing the Aegean from Turkey, or smelling the tea sold by a vendor in an Iraqi refugee camp.
Escaping Wars and Waves begins at the Domiz refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, where in 2013 Kugler stayed with Médicins Sans Frontières to document their work. Two years later, MSF commissioned me to do the same. Like Kugler, I visited the camp’s cinderblock shacks. We each sat with refugees in a circle on the floor, and we each drew them while they spoke. In Kugler’s book, their voices stand alone. He gives neither analysis nor context. He is an artist, not a Middle Eastern specialist. But as in Joe Sacco’s Palestine (1993), Kugler’s sprawl of testimony shows how these individual histories accumulate, blur, and shuffle.
Kugler especially shines when he draws Domiz’s small businesses. At Domiz, as at most Middle Eastern camps, people know they will be staying there a while. While they stay, they want to live. The UNHCR may provide the bread, but refugee entrepreneurs hawk life’s roses in a dazzling and desperate profusion. Domiz has wedding dress rentals and beauty parlors. Cafés and satellite dish repair shops. Stores selling soccer trophies and iPhone cases and nightingales. Djwan owns one such business, renting sound systems. Lean and jaunty, he is a bit of an idol to the camp’s boys, whom he teaches to breakdance and to rap in Kurdish. He makes Kugler tea in his shop, and over six lavishly detailed pages, Kugler unfolds Djwan’s past. Djwan the hipster DJ was once a sniper for the Syrian Arab Army. He was conscripted for his mandatory military service, but things went bad when his tentmate committed suicide. Djwan was jailed and tortured for his friend’s supposed murder. After his family bought his freedom, the army sent him to the front lines. When a rebel rocket-propelled grenade hit a regime tank, his “friends…became ashes.” He deserted just before a major rebel attack. “No one can say: ‘I am a man and therefore I am not afraid,’” he says. “We were all scared.”
From Kurdistan, Kugler moves to Kos. While Greece was always a center for irregular migration, refugees started arriving on the islands en masse in 2015. Thousands came each day, crowding into life rafts with outboard motors for the five-mile voyage from Turkey to Kos, then coating the beaches with the now familiar iconography of deflated boats and abandoned, often useless life jackets. Tourists fled, and aid workers replaced them. Locals reacted occasionally with xenophobic violence, but most often with astounding generosity and grace. Kugler speaks to a Swiss woman who for seven years had run a souvenir stall on Kos’s port. Now she has to move. Business is way down. “I am not angry with the refugees,” she says. “I can understand their circumstances very well. They are my friends.”
The Syrians who make it to Europe are more educated than those stuck in Iraqi Kurdistan. After all, they had two thousand dollars to pay a smuggler. In another world, a world in which one’s destiny was less defined by one’s passport, they would be sipping frappés at the very hotels whose proprietors now ban them from renting rooms. In Europe, Kugler speaks with refugees who were once lawyers, doctors, medical students, to a fashion designer whose artwork was destroyed by ISIS and a teenage girl in a tank top who mourns her lost cat. The worst loss for all these people is the loss of identity. Back home they were respected professionals. Now cops call them monkeys while they beat them. “For us Europe is not a dream land. It is not paradise, it is not heaven,” says a young Syrian man who has spent the last seven months in a leaky tent in the Calais Jungle, a refugee camp in France. But where else can he go?
The story ends in Kugler’s hometown, Simmozheim, Germany, where his parents are helping a Syrian family from Deir ez-Zor adjust to their new lives. While the Syrian mother and father share stories from the war they fled, their kids crowd around. When their son Ahmed tells Kugler he no longer has nightmares, he does so in “decent” German. Their thirteen-year-old daughter, Nour, wants to be a nurse—and now goes by Nora.
This reminds me of another story of migration. Like the Syrians Kugler covered, my great-grandfather fled the twin threats of military conscription and political oppression—in his case, the anti-Semitic oppression of tsarist Russia, where police sent his Bundist comrades to Siberia, and where Jewish boys faced the draft starting at the age of twelve. In 1904, Shmuel Chudozhnik’s boat landed on Ellis Island, where a bureaucrat assigned him a new name, Samuel Rothbort, and he was reborn as an American.
In The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees, Don Brown bolsters Kugler’s layers of testimony with linear explanatory journalism. He starts with the origins of the Syrian revolution, in the graffiti written by fifteen teenagers in the dusty southwestern city of Dara’a, then follows dutifully from their arrests, the resulting protests, and the government crackdown to the well-known tableaus of bombed-out buildings, refugee boats, and ISIS soldiers. It is a straightforward story filled with maps and statistics, generous with the sorts of definitions American audiences still need after decades of meddling in the Middle East. He sketches a brief history of the Assad family’s rise to power, compares Islam’s division into Sunnis and Shias to Christianity’s division into Episcopalians, Methodists, and Baptists, and provides a map of Syria for easy reference.
“Early on, I decided The Unwanted would focus on the refugee experience and disregard information beyond that constraint except when necessary for context,” Brown writes in the book’s epilogue. But his discussion of the war’s origins are pages well spent. “Assad uses arrests and violence to hang on to power,” Brown tells us at one point. “The lucky ones who are eventually freed return with electric shock marks, cigarette burns, and broken bones.” Later: “Assad drops barrel-bombs and destroys buildings and people while anti-Assad jihadists take time out of fighting to murder any who disagree with them.” To those familiar with the Syrian war, this may seem simplistic, but without knowing this background, how can a reader understand why Syrians continue to flee?
Brown draws simply, laying digital washes over his sketchy charcoal line. At his best, he verges on the stark simplicity that comics can do so well. In one double-page spread, he shows a Syrian family in silhouette, sneaking across a Turkish border. With barely any detail, he conveys it all: the trees that resemble smoke billows, the slumped shoulders of the mom, the young child pulling on her father’s hand. Over those three long panels you can feel the painful exhaustion of their march.
Whether they are Turkish border police or tortured activists, Brown’s characters have mask-like, interchangeable faces. Their mouths are ironic slits. Their eyes bulge cartoonishly or else are smudged holes, burning with rancor. They are not individuals, but a mass. Brown tells Syrian stories without names or identifying details. Sometimes this works. After a refugee boat capsizes, a man floats alone in the glittering Mediterranean. “I tried to catch my wife and children in my arms. But one by one, they drowned,” he says. He could be any human on earth.
Other times, this anonymity is less successful. A man tries to cross a checkpoint with a piano strapped to his pickup truck. A masked Islamist asks him: “Don’t you know that music is forbidden by Islam?” “They burn the piano. It could have easily been the piano’s owner,” Brown writes. But the same story was told by Ayham Ahmed, the famous piano man from the refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus. During the war, this young Palestinian musician became a YouTube star for posting videos of himself playing amid the rubble of the district, surrounded by his singing neighbors. He has been profiled by The New York Times and the BBC. It makes little sense for Brown to leave out his name.
Since 2015, most Western journalists have focused on refugees in Europe, but Brown spends time on the 90 percent of refugees who remain in the Middle East. The fourth-largest city in Jordan is now Zaatari, a Syrian refugee camp. In Lebanon, where Syrians make up over a quarter of the population, they face widespread racism—one newspaper columnist accused them of turning fashionable Hamra Street “black”—and work like animals in the agricultural and construction industries, kids alongside adults. “Kids pick potatoes, labor in textile factories, or wash dishes,” Brown writes, across four harsh panels of toiling children. (In 2013, I visited Syrians’ makeshift camps in the Bekaa Valley. Refugees lived in tents made of billboard vinyl and burned plastic bags for heat.)
Over three million Syrians live in somewhat better conditions in Turkey, but Syrian kids still beg on Istanbul’s Istiklal Avenue and Syrian college graduates still toil in sweatshops. As for the Gulf, “the wealthy Arab states of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates offer the refugees no chance for resettlement,” Brown notes.
To research The Unwanted, Brown visited three Greek camps in May 2017. By then, the viral cry of “Refugees Welcome” had long since vanished. “Europe’s—and the world’s—‘love’ buckles under the huge exodus,” he writes, and the camps are a testament to this collapse. “The last visit to a camp heightened the discomfort I’d experienced on my first visit—that I was a voyeur to tragedy.” Nine months earlier, I had met Walid in a camp much like these. They were then, and are now, overcrowded hellholes. A river of sewage runs through the center of Moria Camp in Lesbos, where 8,300 people crowd into a space meant for 3,100. In the fall of 2016, refugees from the Samos camp showed me photos of food the army had served that was laced with maggots, and that winter, a refugee froze to death in Lesbos. At least four other refugees in Greece have ended up hospitalized after they tried to light themselves on fire out of despair.
Brown is at his most damning when he describes how the world turned against Syrian refugees. The friendly Germans offering water bottles become a line of pinched white faces in a generic European capital, shouting in unison: “Refugees not welcome.” Years pass. The razor wire goes up in Orbán’s Hungary; ISIS murders Parisians in the Bataclan attacks, further turning public opinion against the Syrians; Russian bombs fall in Syria. Trump ascends to the American presidency. America has bombed Syria since 2014. It has killed thousands of civilians and leveled the city of Raqqa, where US troops are still stationed. Yet many Americans remain ignorant of the country whose war has, more than any other, shaped our decade. The last lines of Brown’s postscript read: “There are about 5.7 million registered Syrian refugees. In the first three months of 2018, the United States has accepted eleven for resettlement.”
Unlike the books by Kugler and Brown, Threads: From the Refugee Crisis, by the comics artist and activist Kate Evans, is not a Syrian story. It is set in the Calais Jungle, a tent city in France where thousands of refugees and migrants lived from January 2015 until October 2016, in what Evans calls “a microcosmic Disunited Nations.” It is the story of people from the poor world—Syrians, yes, but also Eritreans, Afghans, Iraqis, Sudanese—pressed up against the boundaries of a country made rich by exploiting the poor world. It is also the story of the volunteers who came to Calais, including Evans herself. “What are we doing, swanning about…, congratulating ourselves on our fabulous relief effort?” she demands. This merciless self-examination is one of the book’s finest qualities.
Threads starts off with lace—the Calais lace-making industry, to be exact. In these first few pages, Evans draws dour girls who weave beauty onto their bobbins, until the lace spins elsewhere, to form bomb blasts, fences, walls. Lace borders nearly every page. Evans writes this memoir in the cut-up style of a punk zine. She splices quiet moments spent drawing children in the camp with vitriolic comments left on her blog, where she posted the first chapter of what later became Threads. “This cartoon could not be better propaganda for battlefield veteran Islamic militant males invading Northern Europe if Lenin himself produced it”; “these cute refugee babies grow into vile adults who want to destroy our country.”
In a video interview posted online by her publisher, Evans notes that she did not set out to be a journalist. “Journalists have a pretense to objectivity. I have a strong commitment to telling the truth,” she says. Threads is not an objective document, though it is a work of in-depth journalism. As if to stress her subjectivity, Evans, unlike Kugler and Brown, draws herself into her own work. She is on almost every page, an enthusiastic pink-haired woman with a round guileless face and mournful eyes. You see her giving out markers, buying food with friends to take back to Calais, or talking to her kids. You hear her frustrations and her fears. In a world where refugees are so often the objects of observation, Evans turns her gaze inward. “My white privilege grants me the job of guarding the tool tent,” she writes, during her first stint in Calais. She demands to know the reasons behind “that dubious metaphor, of refugees as a flood.” “What turned on the tap? The bombs and the guns: the ones that we drop and we sell and we profit from.” What is her responsibility? What is her complicity? What can and can’t she fix?
Evans volunteered in the Calais Jungle for ten days in all—a weekend in October 2015, and twice more in January and February 2016. She represents a particular type of volunteer that became ubiquitous during 2015’s mass migration to Europe. They were not the employees of international NGOs who collected large salaries to sit in air-conditioned offices (in the camp at Samos, refugees decided “NGO” stood for “never go out”). They did not wear branded T-shirts or talk about “beneficiaries.” Instead, you met them running DIY kitchens just outside of island detention centers, marching in protests, or playing chess with Afghan kids in squats. They were often young, often punk, and generally politically leftist, with anarchists heavily represented. They believed in solidarity rather than charity. They asked what people needed, worked spontaneously, and bought tents and oranges and kids’ books with their own money. A representative from Médicins Sans Frontières told me that their work in Greece was magnificent.
Still, Evans does not spare their failures. In one harrowing scene, an organization decides to distribute kids’ clothes from inside a transparent-walled arts center known as the Good Chance Dome. It’s supposed to be a photo op, but turns into a fiasco. As the destitute refugees shove, volunteers guard all-too-visible boxes of clothing. “The Good Chance Dome has been so many things…but always, always, it has been a place of welcome,” Evans writes. “Now we’re…trying to keep people out.” As tensions build, the plastic dome collapses. Evans jokes darkly that she could have drawn the scene as a cartoon for the Daily Mail.
Governments increasingly criminalize volunteers like Evans—not just in Europe, but also in the United States. In January 2018, the US indicted Scott Warren, a volunteer with No More Deaths—a faith-based humanitarian group in Arizona that provides aid to immigrants on the southwestern border—on federal charges including conspiracy and harboring undocumented immigrants. According to the complaint, Warren gave them food, water, and shelter for three days. If convicted, he faces up to twenty years’ imprisonment. Evans documents police violence, but their panoply of restrictions are somehow even more galling. In Dunkirk, police ban volunteers from taking dry bedding into the camp. Later, they ban bread. Children huddle outside the fence, eating their bread in the rain. In Calais, police destroy the frail infrastructure of housing, youth centers, distribution spots, and restaurants that refugees and volunteers have built together, which Evans calls “a monument to human ingenuity and charity, however desolate and desperate it may be.”
Though Threads reads as a sort of diary, Evans focuses on the refugees she meets: a tiny girl, delighted to get an orange; the bored young guys who flirt and talk smack; the pregnant mother who has just been slapped by a riot cop. Evans’s best friend in camp is Hoshyar, an Iraqi Kurd with an intelligent graciousness. Hoshyar shares an eight-foot shack with his friend, uses a sliver of broken glass as a shaving mirror, and cherishes cooking for Evans in his makeshift kitchen. For the past four months, he’d been trying to catch a ride across the Channel on the bottom of a truck, so he could join his uncle in Croydon, in south London.
When Evans meets him, even his little shack has been marked for destruction by the French authorities. He will have nowhere to go. Naively, Hoshyar puts his hope in British politicians. “Didn’t you know? Immigrants are always feared, always vilified. They hate you Hoshyar. They think you’re a terrorist”—Evans thinks this, but does not say it. As the date of destruction draws closer, and the prospect of paying an impossible sum to people smugglers becomes more tempting, Hoshyar begins to give in to despair.
Nor can Evans keep Calais’s violence from affecting her. A migrant dies on the train tracks while presumably trying to sneak into England. Police beat a young man while she watches, then force Evans to delete her photos of the incident. “Blood is thicker than all the water in the English Channel, and the Rhine, and the Mediterranean, and the Tigris river,” she writes, but perhaps the greatest pain she feels is the guilt for not being able to take her friends from the camp with her. In the year Evans spent drawing Threads, she went back and forth to England. A piece of paper confined her friends to the Jungle. She flashed her passport, and the police let her cross.
In her essay “We Refugees,” Hannah Arendt wrote, “Nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings—the kind that are put into concentration camps by their foes and internment camps by their friends.” Nearly eighty years later, the world has come no closer to ensuring the rights of a human without a country. Mostly, governments propose quarantine. Internment camps grow in Tornillo, Texas, in Lesbos, in Zaatari, and in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. It won’t work. Each year, the world grows warmer. The oceans rise. Wars are fought for ever-scarcer resources. If the wealthy West worries about one million Syrians, what will it do with millions of climate refugees? “While the bombs still fall, and the bullets still reign, there will be refugees at Calais,” Evans writes. “Hope springs eternal: people looking for that good chance, that one chance, however slim.”