Searching For A Better Life

I recently returned from a vacation tour through Europe.  We were fortunate enough to travel from Budapest, Hungary to Amsterdam, Netherlands and had a great time.  It was interesting on many levels — history, culture, fellow travelers, all of it.  As always when traveling overseas, of course, it also reminded me of how lucky I am to live in the United States.  For all of our troubles and differences of opinions, at least in my lifetime, we have been incredibly fortunate.

This was brought home in one way by the opportunity to visit cities and towns throughout central Europe that were occupied by the Soviets, Nazis, or both.  As I am always reminded, it is one thing to learn history from a book, and quite another to talk to people who lived through the experiences. To these people, it is still a living history.  In the former communist states of Hungary and Slovakia, the rebuilding from World War II is nearly complete.  Construction was delayed for decades because of the Soviet occupation and the reluctance or lack of caring (or both) to put any thought or effort into rebuilding locally important buildings.  While the Soviets (and local regimes) obviously built structures during the period leading up to 1989, they did so without regard to historic local norms, desires or long-standing culture.  And, not to put too fine of a point on it, but what they did build is down right ugly.

In Austria and Germany the scars of World War II remain.  Perhaps not so much with respect to rebuilding cities, but with their history.  Indeed, we were told that the now famous museum in Nuremberg retelling the story of Hitler’s rise and rule — used to educate German youth of the horrors of that period — was not built until 2002.  According to our guide, it could not have been built any earlier because no one wanted to confront that chapter of German history.  Only the younger generation could face the facts.  Many of the medieval cities along the Main and Rhine Rivers had to be rebuilt as they were mostly 90% or more destroyed by Allied bombing.  For the locals this was just a fact — not something raised in acrimony — although they often pointed out that there was no tactical or operational reason for the bombing.  There was only the strategic goal of breaking the will of the people through sheer helplessness.  We have not experienced anything like that since the 1860’s.

Likewise, it was with helplessness that many in these countries watched the flow of thousands upon thousands of people from the Middle East into Europe.  We have seen the reports on  the news here in the U.S., but again, in Europe they are living the reality of the situation.  It is a tragedy seemingly without a solution.  Hundreds, if not thousands, have died making the attempt to get to safety, primarily by sea to Greece where they then try to move on to wealthier nations.  The European Union is grappling with how to deal with the situation.  Provide humanitarian assistance and it probably entices more people to make the dangerous run.  Do nothing to help them and thousands of people suffer and die.

From a distance, the most interesting discussion involved what to call these people.  Perhaps that discussion is relevant to our own political debates in the run-up to the 2016 elections.  The question was whether they were “migrants,” “refugees” “asylum seekers” or “immigrants.”  The question is more than one of semantics as under international law and under the standards of humanitarian treatment, how they are categorized makes a difference in how nations should, and will, deal with them.  To those making the dangerous trek however, it may matter little.  It is a problem that is only going to continue to grow as the civil war in Syria continues, and ISIS and other groups operate in the Middle East.  Without solving that root problem, the mass migration, the largest since World War II according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will continue.

In 1980’s I had two experiences with people fleeing what must have been intolerable conditions. I still think about them to this day.  They were on a smaller scale than those going on today in Europe, but in some ways are even more unbelievable.  Today’s refugees leaving the Middle East for Europe take boats across the Mediterranean Sea headed for Europe.  It is very dangerous and they are horribly mistreated by smugglers profiting from the endeavor.  But they have a destination in mind and a relatively short trip.  In the early 80’s refugees were leaving Viet Nam in small boats heading out to sea. No destination, per se — they were just hoping that a passing freighter (or their greatest hope, a U.S. Navy ship) would spot them and pick them up.  Some made it, some did not. There is no real way of knowing because those that didn’t make it were lost at sea without a trace.  Those that got picked up ended up all over the Pacific because most ships would continue to their destinations before off-loading those they had picked up.  On two different USN ships I was part of the ship’s company that picked up some of these refugees.  We were not on any mission to do so, it was purely luck or providence that we spotted them adrift at sea as we proceeded through the area.  Of the several occasions, it was nearly always the same. We would spot a rickety non-sea worthy vessel of about 50 feet adrift with upwards of 75 or 80 people on board. Usually those on board consisted of a couple of extended families (babies to grand parents) from the same geographic area. They were out of fuel and food and nearly out of water. They had nothing but the clothes on their back as in each case pirates intercepted the boats before we did and took everything of value from the people — including pulling teeth with silver or gold fillings. There were rarely young women on board as the pirates took them too.

Unbelievable.  To this day I ask myself how bad things would have to be to put my entire extended family in a non-sea worthy boat and push out to sea with no destination and only a vague hope that a friendly ship would stop and help us.  And the odds were that no one would see us.   I cannot imagine risking the lives of my entire family in such a way.  I still think about it.

(As a footnote, I later served on ships where some of the new crew members reporting aboard were babies or small children on those boats rescued at sea in the early 80’s by U.S. Navy ships.  Only in America.)

In the late 1980’s my ship was operating in the Caribbean Sea on a mission unrelated to the migration then taking place from Haiti.  The U.S. Coast Guard was actively involved in rescuing those migrants, also in flimsy boats, from the sea.  They would take the refugees to the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba where they would be processed by Immigration and State Department personnel and then generally returned to Haiti.  Pure chaos. Again what came through was the overwhelming desperation of the people.  While we were not directly involved in that operation, we were certainly able to observe at close hand how difficult it was to effect the rescues on a mass scale and then to humanely treat the people once they reached shore while still trying to maintain some degree of orderliness and safety.  It is an extremely difficult task.

I can only imagine what is going on at sea and ashore in Europe as the numbers of people flowing into Europe dwarf anything that I participated in or observed.  A very tough situation.

We are so lucky in so many ways.  As partisan divides emerge, I trust that all of us will realize how lucky we are compared to so many in this world — past and present.

Keeping Some Perspective

As a news junkie, especially political developments and political opinion pieces, it is sometimes easy for me to lose my perspective on just what is really important. When we are able to keep things in the right context, the news of the day over some political maneuver or another is really quite unimportant in the larger scheme of things. And sometimes it is just as important to remember how lucky we are to be living in the good ol’ US of A.

This was brought home to me yet again on Sunday night while watching a piece on the CBS news program 60 Minutes.

Sunday night the program re-visited the “Lost Boys of Sudan” 12 years after the original report on their travails. The segment sought to catch up with the many young men airlifted to the United States to find out how they are getting along after living in the United States for many years. The catch-up piece originally aired on 31 March 2013 and was re-aired last Sunday (21 July). You may remember the lost boys — the roughly 5.000 children that left Sudan during that country’s murderous civil war to walk nearly 1,000 miles over the course of five years to refugee camps in Kenya. Extraordinary. And heart-breaking — their stories are incredible and many did not survive the journey.

What struck me was their unfailing optimism and faith that things would work out. In particular during the piece, one of the boys (now all men) was asked about how he and the others could keep going against such overwhelming odds. With a smile on his face, he replied that even though people called them the “lost boys” he knew that he wasn’t lost because God knew where he was. Even today, despite the fact that not every one of those airlifted to the United States was successful in his life here, all of those interviewed in the piece were uniformly optimistic and eternally grateful for the opportunity to come to our country.

Their story reminded me of my time in the naval service in the early 1980’s operating in the South China Sea (map) on transits between the Philippines and the Indian Ocean. On several different occasions we came upon single boatloads of Vietnamese refugees adrift at sea. Entire extended families and friends would load up a small boat (usually a wooden junk about 40 feet or so in length with 40 or 50 people of all ages and both sexes) and set out to sea in the hopes that a US Navy ship or a friendly merchant captain would spot them and pick them up. Many did not make it and are presumed lost at sea. Not every merchant captain was keen to pick them up either as it could become a significant bother to take care of them and because of the need to divert to an acceptable harbor to drop them off. Some of the ship’s Masters just looked the other way and kept going. Many did the right thing. US Navy ships always stopped — when we saw them. I often wonder how many we inadvertently passed in the night or in poor weather because we simply did not see them. (Small wooden boats don’t show up well on radar and in that part of the world there are nearly always numerous small fishing boats at sea so, without a visual cue, those on watch would have no idea that they were passing someone in need.)

Remember that the open sea is very much like the wasteland that the lost boys crossed — very little chance of getting food or water except what you bring with you. And like the lost boys, they were beset by many dangers stretching from terrible weather to pirates that would board the boats and take whatever (and whomever) they wanted with them. When we would find the refugee boats — and I need to point out that our mission was not to look for them, we would come across them purely by chance — they would be so grateful that it was gut wrenching. They had literally nothing, yet were indescribably happy knowing that they now had a chance at a better life.

Like some of the lost boys, some of those Vietnamese refugees made it to the United States. In my later years in the service, Sailors would report for duty on my ships that were Vietnamese and of an age and background where it was possible that I and my shipmates, or others like us, picked up their parents or even they themselves as children at sea those many years ago.

I cannot imagine what it must be like for someone to leave their homeland like those in Sudan and to set off on a walk of unknown duration, or to put my family in a boat and head out to sea knowing that if the right ship did not find us, we would all perish. They had no way of knowing that they would survive, much less dare to hope that someday they would make it the USA. Yet, they all remained positive, put their faith in a higher power and are eternally grateful for what help they got along the way.

What a powerful statement about the hopeful and determined nature of mankind and a testament to the basic humanity that knows no racial, national or ethnic boundaries that so many of us exhibit when given the chance. What a powerful lesson about our nation and how lucky we truly are to be citizens in this land. Sometimes we just need to keep things in the right perspective.