Muslim Migrants, 'Embracing the Infidel'
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
If there really is a clash of civilizations, a lot of people are trying to cross from one side to the other. My colleague Steve Inskeep met a writer who spent time in no-man's-land.
STEVE INSKEEP reporting:
All the Islamic World's resentment of the West does not stop Muslims from trying to reach the West. The author Behzad Yaghmaian has been following the migrant pathways.
Mr. BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN (Author): The question to ask is: Why do people migrate? In my opinion, the primary reason is based on a quest for human security. But while people, and especially Muslims, leave their countries requesting and longing for human security, they find out that on the way their personal security is compromised. And when they reach the West, the West looks at them as a threat to national security.
INSKEEP: Yaghmaian wrote a book called "Embracing the Infidel." He tells the stories of people who started in the Middle East, Afghanistan or Africa. Many end up in crowded slums in Istanbul, right on the edge of Europe. From there, they look for a way, legally or not, to reach Rome, Paris or New York. As he wandered the slums and refugee camps, Yaghmaian learned just how much the migrants are risking.
Mr. YAGHMAIAN: There was a Nigerian I met in Bulgaria at a refugee camp in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. We talked for a while, and while I was there they decided to leave Bulgaria to go to Greece. They left Bulgaria overnight and they crossed the mountains separating Greece and Bulgaria. In the middle of the way they got caught in winter storm, and two people died going there. The Nigerian I'm referring to almost lost his legs because the weather was so cold he could not move anymore. Another friend carried him for a while, and then he decided either he had to drop him there, let him die, or he was going to die with him. So the friend chose to leave his friend to die.
There's this other example of an Iranian man who I met in the port city of Patras in Greece. When I met him he was living in an abandoned truck. He was a political refugee from Iran. He was jailed in Iran three times, tortured by the Islamic republic. When I met him he showed me the scars on his body. He escaped Iran. He left his family behind. He went to Turkey and from there he went to Greece, hoping he would be given political asylum, but the Greeks did not give him that. So then he chose to move forward, to go to Italy. He succeeded in hiding in a truck carrying watermelon from Greece to Italy. The truck boarded a ship. The ship was on the way in the sea for nearly 40 hours. When he got out of the truck he was dizzy, he fell down, they took him to the hospital. Two hours later, he was pronounced dead. And a picture I took of him in the truck became the last picture of his life.
INSKEEP: Do people that you met along this immigrant trial who take these terrible risks know precisely what it is that they're seeking?
Mr. YAGHMAIAN: No, they do not. And they face that and they proceed because they still have a hope that, somewhere out there, there is a new home for them, a home that would give them the security they were lacking at their place of birth, whether that was Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia or elsewhere, a home that would give them economic security, a home that would give them political security. So despite the hardships, despite seeing the death of comrades and friends, they proceed because there is no return. They have reached the point of no return.
INSKEEP: How does it happen to be that the road from the Islamic world to the West seems to lead through a large number of McDonald's?
Mr. YAGHMAIAN: There's something peculiar about McDonald's in places I met. McDonald's are often places that are not raided by the police because of its international status. So smugglers and refugees and migrants make their meetings in McDonald's, plan the trip, exchange money, phone numbers, talk about contacts and everything else without being actually raided by the police, without being arrested or anything. So in Istanbul, the two McDonald's that I mention in my book, they're like typical places--the most important places for meeting between smugglers and their clients. And that's one of the ironies of globalization and how this symbol of global capitalism lifestyle in the United States has also become a way people from the other part of the world find the road to the West.
INSKEEP: You follow this trail across a large chunk of the world and you end up in New York City talking to Afghans and others who have made it to the United States.
Mr. YAGHMAIAN: Yeah.
INSKEEP: Do immigrants find acceptance here?
Mr. YAGHMAIAN: Yes and no. The particular story that I have in my book, the story of Zara, an Afghan young woman, who became orphaned by the Taliban--she finally ended up in New York--is an example of somebody who does not find acceptance and friendly reception in the United States. Zara is a woman who is committed to her religion. She wears a head scarf. But while in New York City she's caught between two worlds: the world of fundamentalist Islam, the Muslims who see her scarf and her model and version of Islamic hijab not sufficient. So they scorn her for not following fundamentalist Islam. And on the other hand, she's scorned by the non-Muslims who distrust her. To them, she represents fundamentalism. They stare at her. They scorn her. They ridicule her. And as a result of that, she's very depressed and she misses going back to Afghanistan. She misses home. She misses the times that she had with her family, the times that she was not stared at, the times she was accepted for who she is.
We have to notice that September 11th changed the world of migration and also changed the world of Muslim migrants in the West, including the United States. After September 11th, migrants became potential security threats, and I think a lot of Americans feel that when they see Muslim migrants, particularly.
INSKEEP: Did you ask Zara if she intended to go back to Afghanistan?
Mr. YAGHMAIAN: Many times, and she hopes to go back just to see it one more time. She also wishes to go back and see the grave of her parents. She complains about loneliness here. She's a very lonely person. She doesn't have...
INSKEEP: But she's not planning to just go back and live?
Mr. YAGHMAIAN: She doesn't know. She does not know. She's here to get her education because her father wanted her to get her education. She has no idea what she's going to do. She's not happy with her life here, not at all.
INSKEEP: She made it all the way here, and her journey isn't over.
Mr. YAGHMAIAN: Exactly. The odyssey continues.
INSKEEP: Behzad Yaghmaian is the author of "Embracing the Infidel."
Thanks very much for speaking with us.
Mr. YAGHMAIAN: Thank you very much.
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.
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