Some stories are real

There’s a group of lively and engaging teenagers in my sitting room. Eating pizzas, cake, watching random stuff on the television and generally making a lot of noise (some of which could be called singing). They are celebrating with my eldest, who turned sixteen this week. Those sixteen years have gone in a flash, as they do for most parents I know. And like most parents of sixteen-year olds, we’ve negotiated ‘wants’ versus ‘needs’ many times so far.

On his birthday, as has become my habit over the last sixteen or so years, I fell asleep in front of the television. This time, I woke up to the BBC programme Exodus, a series which follows individuals on their journey as migrants and refugees. The BBC describes it as a “terrifying, intimate, epic portrait of the migrant crisis”, and they aren’t wrong. On this particular episode we met young men living in disused train carriage in Serbia, whose daily reality it is to live in the kind of dark, inhospitable conditions used to portray fear and lawlessness in western TV dramas. Many of these young men huddled around a makeshift fire to combat the ice on the ground were not much older than my sixteen-year old. But they were fending for themselves with no kitchen, toilet or lightbulb in sight.

In the same episode, we also met a couple and their two children, living in a container in a refuge camp in Greece. It’s hard to imagine a container made to look more homely. But it was still a container. In a camp with no school, and no future. The mother, Nazifa, was six months pregnant. Her goal was to reach Germany, so that her third child could be born there. In this episode she was agonising about the possibility of having to make the journey alone, as they couldn’t afford to pay the smuggler for her to take either or both of her children.  Her choice: to leave her two children behind and make the uncertain journey alone, to split the family and take one child, or to remain with her family and give up the chance to change their lives forever.

We watched Nazifa sing her toddler to sleep. Watching her made me smile, and made me cry. Singing a child to sleep is the kind of intimate everyday act most of us parents have enjoyed – and taken for granted – countless times. But unlike Nazifa I’ve never been forced to choose between my children.  I’ve never had to fear them living alone in a dark disused railway siding in the snow. And I’ve never had to consider leaving my children behind.

The BBC describes Exodus as epic. ‘Epic’ is a strange word. We use it of films, of drama, of stories. To mean a story beyond what is normally contemplated or imaginable. And generally, of course, to mean something made up. But Exodus isn’t made up. It’s about real people, who but for a bit of luck or a change of circumstance could be living lives just like mine and my son’s. I cannot imagine having the courage to do as they have done, but then I haven’t had to flee war, hunger, oppression and daily violence just to stand a chance of staying alive.

Exodus tells the story of just a few of the people caught up in the refugee and migrant crisis across the world. Underlying these stories is a huge, unravelling crisis with no end in sight.  I don’t know what the answers are to the refugee and migrant crisis. But I do know that leaving people to fend for themselves in unheated train carriages in the snow, or depriving young children of their mothers, is wrong. Watching programmes like Exodus doesn’t of course address the problem, and also runs the risk of turning the lives of real people into epic stories we can observe not actively participate in. But it is a story that needs to be told, if more mothers are to have a chance of meeting the basic needs of their children as they turn sixteen.


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