Editor's note: This is the second in a series of seven collaborative reflections by students and faculty in the Honors College at Southern Oregon University (SOU) participating in the The Democracy Project (DP), a comprehensive international examination of democracy that includes its historical evolution, the role of minority groups, and concepts such as citizenship, cultural assimilation, equality, freedom, imperialism, nationalism, security and sovereignty.
Walking through the streets of Berne, Geneva, Gstaad, Munich, Vienna, Prague and Berlin, the architecture commands a sense of awe. From Romanesque to Gothic, to Baroque and beyond, the continent’s history, culture, and evolution become apparent. Many areas of the world have influenced Europe, and observers of the architectural beauty can see the impact of other countries and cultures in the limestone buildings that embody many aspects of European history.
Like every other continent, country or culture, Europe is undeniably intertwined with the rest of the world and continues to be defined. Current and historical events shape this cultural definition and, as past shifts into the present, slowly fading into the future, the culture of Europe is always changing alongside the rest of contemporary society.
Due to global interconnectedness, and the continent’s proximity to the Middle East, Europe is not separate from the ongoing conflict in Syria. Just like other major conflicts in the world, despair, persecution and the sheer will to survive drive people to seek refuge in countries that offer safety and life with dignity.
Syrian refugees are no different. They embark on perilous journeys to reach Western Europe, Germany in particular. Over a million refugees are seeking asylum in Germany, with more flowing in daily. Certain areas of Europe, including Germany, struggle with labor shortages, aging populations and other economic factors. Incoming refugees are filling these gaps. Citizens of the European countries experiencing the influx of refugees fear economic, security and cultural threats.
Studies by PEW, TIME, and MercyCorps have demonstrated that more than 4.7 million Syrian refugees have fled their homes. Although many believe the movement of refugees will overwhelm the job market or dramatically lower wages, the research does not support this. Convincing locals that refugees are not an economic threat remains a challenge. Furthermore, national security fears and refugee safety concerns culminate in an elevated anxiety level for all.
Maintaining the focus on caring for children struggling with trauma and families wounded by the horrors of war remains a struggle. While the two cultures are unique, they share the common thread of interconnected humanity; they are not separate and distinct. Current events will be carved into the walls and written on the street as the present slips away and become another moment in history. Europe must allow the Syrian refugee crisis to become something beautiful in the architecture of the continent’s culture.
When dealing with this refugee crisis, Germany seeks a balance between a global and an individual perspective to avoid once again transforming humans into statics. As a country longing to escape a dark past, accepting more than 1 million refugees last year alone, those who have extended open arms to the masses are worried they cannot do it alone.
Blurred amongst the many cobblestones is the mark of an exodus of human life. The evidence, amidst the Gothic arches and decorative fountains, are stumbling stones. These small slabs of bronze are gentle reminders. Each stumbling stone serves as a memorial to a life lost in the Holocaust. The stones are displayed in the street near a victim’s place of residence and add a hauntingly personal touch to the elegant architecture of Europe. A reminder that the images and memories of the Holocaust still live vividly in the consciousness of many today, especially in Germany. Many lost their lives in concentration camps, but the goodness, richness, and totality of their lives were not buried in a shallow grave or scattered in a field; they are remembered.
The refugees from Syria pose both a challenge and a chance to prove Europe’s humanity and reach one step closer to redemption. The stumbling stones represent the fact that Europe is capable of recognizing the individual. The bronze messages are names, not numbers, and a reminder to the world that human life is not trivial. Men, women, and children are not a collective mass of refugees but rather individuals with names and stories. They are lives left behind due to events not of their making but rather, once again, war-torn predicaments. Every human deserves a final resting place, and every refugee deserves protection.
As floods of people maneuver through streets lined with musicians, cafes, camera-toting tourists, and flower boxes, it's hard not to ponder the influence and the interconnectedness of the different expressions of the human experience. From the ornate statues overhead to the pavers below one's feet, everything exhibits the marks of human life. Our ability to impact the world around us is visible in the architecture of our cities and culture, making a conscious choice to see the unique aspects of our way of life as well as the elements that are undeniably human. The overwhelming reminder to build and live the life history credits to you. Stand in the present, and do not settle for what the world is accepting as the norm. Inspire the world and redecorate as needed to build a stable future.
When accepting the challenge to write a dispatch for the Democracy Project, the initial thoughts were to fill the lines with facts and theories about the Syrian Refugee Crisis. Instead, the travel experience offered a much broader perspective of humanity that illustrates the world’s interconnectedness and complexity.
“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart” (Anne Frank).
Dr. Lee Ayers is division director of undergraduate studies at Southern Oregon University. Samara Diab is a sophomore French and English major and Honors College scholar at SOU.