Watching the world go round

Sun, 13 Sep 2015 Source: Elizabeth Ohene

As I watch, along with the rest of the world, the agony of the Syrian refugees, I try to remind myself that this current madness of humanity too shall end.

As a child I knew about Syrians in Ghana as traders and I knew one of them who used to be irritated no end if anybody called him a Lebanese, which was the generic name we called all the traders from the Middle East. He assured me the Syrians were very different from their neighbours.

“We are more civilised and we go back far, far longer than any of them”, he would say. It was his food I liked even though I called it what we all knew it as Lebanese food.

In later life I got to know other Syrians who would have me believe that I haven’t been to a cultured city until I go to Allepo.

I doubt I will ever make it there now since there doesn’t seem to be much of it left now, judging from the television pictures. I never did make it to any Syrian town but the capital city Damascus is part of my diction as the name has become an integral part of the English language. Who on this earth hasn’t had a Road to Damascus moment.

Today a generation of young people will grow up and their image of Syrians will be as refugees trying to breach fortress Europe and squeezing through razor wires to enter Hungary. The words that would spring up once you type Syrians in your brain would be refugees or desperados.

I remember that as a child, if you refused to eat your food, you were told that you should think about the hungry children of India. Today , hungry children come with Africa. It is quite likely that during my youth there were hungry children in Africa and maybe in Ghana, but I did not know any. The first time I associated hunger and famine with Africa was during the Nigerian civil war when images of emaciated Biafran children became a worldwide phenomenon.

Less than a decade afterwards Nigerians had become known around the world for their conspicuous display of wealth. From starving children, they had become the rich of Africa. There were regular stories in the British press about Nigerians giving a thousand-pound tips to taxi drivers in London and shopping in the most expensive shops. You could take the Nigerian naira into a foreign currency shop in New York or London and exchange it for dollars or pounds sterling.

Ghanaians who were having a hard time generally those days would look on as the Nigerians would be waved through at London airports with hardly a glance at their passports while the Ghanaians were herded into pens and given the full treatment.

When the Liberian civil war erupted and the first refugees started fleeing from the fighting in 1990, there wasn’t a United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) offices anywhere in the West African region. There had been Ghanaian refugees in Togo in the late 1950s and 1960s but there had never been such an exodus of people from a West African country before.

We in this region pride ourselves on our good neighbourliness but I do recall that there was a particular boatload of desperate Liberians that went from harbour to harbour along the West African coast and no country would allow them to dock and accept the refugees. Yes, Liberian refugees later became established parts of our communities but boatloads of unwanted refugees were not unknown along our shores. I remind myself of that just to make sure I don’t feel smug about how much more accommodating we are to strangers than the Europeans.

I recall the culture shock that some of the Liberian refugees had about what they saw as the unsophisticated nature of Accra compared to Monrovia. “You don’t even have a Broad Street and people plant cassava in their gardens…. And people go to church without wearing stockings” one of them told me in an interview. I suggested she might want to go to church at the Anglican Cathedral on Accra’s High Street and she was likely to see ladies in stockings and hats for the 10 a.m. service and that might remind her of Monrovia.

Once the Liberians had accepted that they had to flee from their country, they ended up in places like Ghana not because it was their preferred destination but they hoped it would be a temporary stop before they made it to the United States of America. In much the same way as the Syrians are arriving on Greek islands and Lampedusa, off Italy in the hope it would be a temporary stop before they get to Germany or Sweden. I recall that some of the Liberians waited here in Ghana for 20 years and never got the visas they had hoped for. When the war was over and things got settled, they had a choice to either settle in Ghana or go back to Liberia.

In this current crisis, the Germans have emerged as the most generous of the Europeans as they have allowed unprecedented numbers of the refugees into their countries. It might well be because the Germans are not exactly poor and they can afford to absorb the 800,000 number of refugees being mentioned, but it is certainly impressive. Then I remind myself of the refugee camp in Kenya that has hosted over a million Somalis for more than 20 years.

But what is one to make of the total lack of interest in the rich Gulf States who have not taken in any of the Syrian refugees. These states are rich and can afford to take in refugees, they are Arabs and Islamic like the majority of the Syrian refugees and can therefore assimilate more easily. Nor for that matter can one easily understand why the Syrian refugees themselves have not tried to go to any of the Gulf States.

I wonder what is going to happen when all the European countries have taken in the maximum numbers that their societies will tolerate. Since there does not seem to be any likelihood of the war in Syria coming to an end soon; where will the rest of the Syrians be heading to?

These days I don’t think we are such an attractive destination and I wonder if the Syrians will be desperate enough to want to come this way as their forebears did as merchants a hundred years ago.

Who knows maybe the war will end and in another ten years, nobody will be talking about Syrians as refugees. The English language might even have evolved to find another meaning for the expression the ‘Road to Damascus’.

Columnist: Elizabeth Ohene