There was a three-month period last year, late winter to early spring, during which I hardly slept. I was halfway through a graduate writing program in Austin, and I’d begun to feel like Kafka’s cockroach. This place was supposed to be something of a monastery, offering its initiates time and resources, a quiet and focused experience without careerist pressures or competition. Yet the luxury of freedom and support, and the implicit expectation of greatness, produced its own kind of pressure. My self-worth became tangled up in my work, and the state of the latter began to dictate the health of the former. When I got stuck, my sleep suffered; sleepless, I felt like I could no longer write.
At the time, I had been laboring on a script about a group of American Civil War veterans who embark on a guano-mining scheme in Micronesia in the late 1800s, a story about the West plundering the resources of the rest, but soon began to think I was polluting the topic merely by writing about it. Instead of unspooling as a blood-pounding maritime story, the adventure began to feel convoluted and lifeless. I thought of E.B. White, who once replied to a gushing fan that “a person who writes of this and that stands in same relation to his world as a drama critic to the theater. He is full of free tickets and implied obligations. He can’t watch the show just for the fun of it. And watching the show just for the fun of it, once that privilege is forfeited, begins to seem like the greatest privilege there is.”
To justify the generous checks I continued to receive each month from the graduate program, I put down the failed guano script and returned to a short story I’d never quite finished, about an Oxford-educated Kurdish refugee who lived in New York with his senile grandmother, wore a colostomy bag, and made a living driving a gypsy cab, having been fired from his job as a university lecturer on Romantic poetry. His acidic misery and rage at the world were things I felt I could make come alive on the page. It was a wonderful outlet for my own sour gloom.
At this point, Kurdish people happened to be all over the news because of the ongoing migrant crisis and the now-famous photograph of a dead Kurdish boy, three-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose body had washed up on a Turkish beach. The sight of his wet baby clothes, his fine wet baby hair, his pudgy, water-logged baby hands, was so heartbreakingly against the order of things that the presidents and prime ministers of France, Britain, Ireland, Canada, Turkey, and Australia had spoken out about it. On the catalyzing basis of that single, terrible photograph, Australia committed to accepting twelve thousand Syrian refugees; national elections in Canada (which the Kurdi family had been trying to reach, from Turkey) were thrown in turmoil; migrant-focused charities around the world reported a fifty-five-fold increase in donations. Abdullah Kurdi, Alan’s father, was invited to deliver the Alternative Christmas Broadcast on the UK’s Channel 4; the dissident artist Ai Weiwei posed as the drowned boy in an art project; ISIS incorporated the picture into its propaganda campaigns.
Instead of writing my story, I spent days reading about the doomed Kurdi family, whose situation was even more horrific than the picture let on. Alan’s mother and brother had drowned that day, too. The only survivor had been the father, Abdullah, who’d given contradictory accounts of the accident in different interviews. It eventually emerged that Abdullah had been the captain of the inflatable vessel, meant for eight but carrying sixteen; that he’d flipped it over by driving too fast; that he’d pleaded with the other passengers, while still treading water, not to report him to the authorities. It turned out it wasn’t uncommon for passengers who’d never driven boats before to be appointed by Turkish smugglers to pilot the overburdened crafts in exchange for discounted smuggling rates for the rest of their families.
On the Internet, every tragedy spawns countless versions and counter-versions, and I learned that Abdullah had sold his son’s clothes to a French museum for a staggering sum, that he was initially tried, in Turkey, for his family’s deaths, that others were ultimately sentenced for this crime, that Abdullah refused offers of resettlement to Canada, claiming he couldn’t leave the Syrian town of Kobane, where his family was buried, and whose graves he pledged to visit every day.
It’s often difficult, online, to feel as though you’ve truly reached the bottom of things. So I read more about the Kurds. I read articles in English and French, read interviews with migrants whose brothers had been crushed by the Eurostar as they’d tried walking from Calais to Dover, through the tunnel under the Channel. I watched footage of ships capsizing in the Mediterranean, videos of Hungarian police in riot gear firing on crowds of refugees. I re-watched Children of Men. I re-read The Road.
Around the time I discovered the tragedy of Alan Kurdi, I encountered the story of another dead baby boy. It was a popular Buddhist parable, the tale of Kisa Gotami, a woman who becomes so crazed with grief after losing her newborn that she refuses to let go of the body, even though the baby is dead and starting to decompose in her arms. As she walks around her village, begging everyone she meets to find her a doctor who can restore the baby to life, a villager takes pity on her and sends her to see the Buddha, who tells her that, yes, he has medicine for her, but that first, she must go back to her village and fetch a cup of mustard seeds from a house where no one has ever died. So Kisa Gotami wearily returns to her village, where she knocks on door after door; she is unable to find a single house that hasn’t been visited by death. As she trudges back up the mountain, she is gifted with an epiphany and realizes that death touches everyone, that suffering affects all living creatures, that pain is with all of us, always and forever, and that the point of life isn’t to avoid it.
I mention the story of Kisa Gotami because around this time I started to sleep again. One whole night, and then another. Shaky and unexpected as this newfound restfulness was, I was afraid to interrogate its source. I didn’t want to jinx it. Yet I knew all the same that I’d managed to break down the cinderblock doors of my self-preoccupation because the intense, enormous suffering of hordes of others had shifted my focus from my own. And just as Kisa Gotami decides, after her veil of pain lifts a bit, to devote herself to the teachings of Buddha, after a few nights of sound sleep I found a Kurdish refugee camp outside of Dunkirk, a northern French coastal town that was razed during World War II, and decided to go volunteer.
I wasn’t so naive as to think that what the migrants needed at that juncture was for an insomniac graduate student given to morbid overthinking and creative miscarriage to show up with an offer—of what, he himself wasn’t even sure. And I was wary of fetishizing anybody’s misery. But I thought I might as well try to do something useful and concrete, or at the very least, listen, hear, see. At the end of spring, I flew to Paris, where my mother’s family lives, to spend a night with a cousin before taking a train to Dunkirk the following day.
When I met my cousin in front of his building, instead of leading me up the stairs, to his apartment, he picked up my bag and took me to the nearby Bataclan theater, where ninety people had been killed that fall in a terror attack. He showed me the bullet holes still lodged in the walls of buildings and said that he and his girlfriend had heard the screams and gunfire from a nearby restaurant that pulled down its shutters the minute the violence erupted. At dinner, they told me they’d spent the following week watching graphic videos of the city-wide assault, unable to sleep, unable to go in to work, shaking their heads and holding each other tight. My cousin’s girlfriend said the feeling of war still lingered in the air.
The following morning, I planned to visit the Fragonard Perfume Museum (named for the eighteenth-century Rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard) before taking the train to Dunkirk, but ended up instead at the museum of Honoré Fragonard, the painter’s cousin, a mad anatomist who flayed and preserved human corpses for the sake of art. It was an insane little museum, the highlight of which was a trio of human fetuses, delicately arranged with their hands on their hips and their legs slightly bent, so as to give the impression that they were dancing a little jig.
In Dunkirk I told an-off duty bus driver where I was going. He miraculously agreed to take me to there but during the drive lectured me over his shoulder about the Kurds sowing mayhem around town, gang-raping schoolgirls and stealing from local stores. When he finally let me out, it was on the wrong side of the A16, an eight-lane superhighway. He told me the Kurdish camp was across the road, past the highway, past a ravine, and wished me luck, though in parting, said, “I don’t know why you would help them.”
The ravine was strewn with abandoned toys and tarps and mangy sneakers, and when I reached the top of the hill, I saw hundreds of tiny cabins and tents spread out in an abandoned train depot studded with repurposed shipping containers and buildings with shattered windows and caved-in roofs. My blood was pounding from the exertion and adrenaline of running across the highway, and from anticipation, though it felt sordid to me that I should be thrilled to have made it here.
Yet the next few weeks were rather muted. I handed out sleeping bags, shaving kits, soggy rice on Styrofoam plates. I collected and boiled scabies-infested laundry. I picked up trash, burnt mattresses, the occasional goat carcass. I repaired children’s bicycles. I taught a few English classes. I tried to help refugees make sense of the contorted logic of international asylum law. Having made it to France from Iraq, or Syria, or Iran (Kurds live in all three of these countries, plus Turkey), everyone’s sights were universally set on England. It was all the Kurds could talk about, England. They were like scholars about it, relentless and tunnel-minded in their pursuit of the goal.
A week after I arrived, I befriended an Iranian carpenter and his wife, who told me there had been twenty-five people on the inflatable dinghy that had carried them from Turkey to Greece. It was meant to hold fifteen. Their pilot was an Afghan teen who’d never seen the ocean and had received a complimentary trip in exchange for driving the boat. Soon, the waves submerged the motor. At this point in the story the carpenter’s wife got up and went outside.
I was in their musty little cabin. They had offered me melon and tea. The carpenter finished the story. It wasn’t a story he ever wanted to tell halfway, or lightly, but he was glad his wife was gone. Because the worst of it, he said, worse than the prospect of his own drowning, had been his wife’s wailing, the thought of her death, slamming into him like a knife, again and again. Somehow, their boat reached a mound of reefs and rocks before it sank, and a Kurdish Iranian passenger—a sailor—repaired the motor, took over for the Afghan pilot, and got everyone safely to Lesbos. The carpenter was sitting on his knees. He kept refilling my tea. His eyes were bright. I saw him on that boat, surrounded by the awful sea. I couldn’t imagine what had gone through his head.
Some days later, I came across the couple at an open-air Bible study session organized around a garbage fire. They told me they were converting to Christianity. The carpenter’s wife said they were done with Islam. Everyone else nodded. I recognized the hard bright thing I’d perceived a glimmer of in their cabin. I’d mistaken it for fortitude, or self-reliance, but now I thought it was the wattage that lets you drag yourself on. I had simply seen the light of it, the same light that pushes you to convert after you nearly drown. It’s harder to dim than hope.
Something saved the carpenter and his wife that day, but something failed them, too. And so it was, all across the camp, where life seemed frozen and stillborn. Everywhere was boredom, worn on every face, emanating from every cabin, every tent. I couldn’t connect it to examples from my own life. It wasn’t the impatient, restless feeling I experienced when I sat in traffic or waited for a friend who was running late. This boredom was more like depression, felt in the stomach rather than in the hands and feet. It was sharp as a rodent’s teeth and gnawed incessantly at the people who were here, reminding them that they had failed, that they were stuck, that whatever luck had sustained them until now hadn’t been enough to see them through.
Most of these terminally bored refugees were single young men who spent their days outdoors, even in bad weather, because it beat staying inside, in their rancid tents and cabins. Once in a while, some of the bored young men played soccer on the gravel, but this required energy they didn’t usually have. So they sat, they smoked. They had run out of most things to talk about. There were communal areas with little stoves and cellphone charging stations where they frittered away the hours, spitting sunflower seeds, charging their phones, red-eyed from smoke, blinking at nothing.
Sometimes, they went to English class, offered four times a day in a damp Red Cross tent. I taught there occasionally. Everyone took their shoes off when they entered, but kept their coats. The head teacher was an Englishman with stinking socks who asked his pupils several times each week, since they were always vanishing and new ones always arriving: “Where? Is? The? Statue? Of Liberty?”
Everyone loved that one, even though no one was heading for the United States, because the Statue of Liberty is like Coca-Cola: both universal symbols, one of immigrant striving, the other of friendship and global happiness.
“Amrika! Atlantic! New York! California!” they’d shout. The teacher would smile and ask: “What does the Statue of Liberty rep-re-sent?” And the young men would look at him with glazed eyes, because they truly could never understand this guy, never felt like they were learning any English, and the English teacher would hem and haw: “What does it mean? What does it sym-bo-lize?” until finally, someone who spoke a little English, someone who had a brother in Leeds, would explain to the others, in Kurdish, what the guy meant, and everyone would shout: “Amrika! Freedom! Money! Barack Obama!” and the English teacher with the stinking socks would nod somberly at each and every one of them, and say, “It represents a Warm Welcome. Which I know doesn’t feel like the case. So, to better times, guys. To better times.” And with that, the English teacher would clap his hands, and the bored young men would stream out into the wind or rain.
Some of them wandered outside the camp, around the city of Dunkirk, though they weren’t very welcome. Or they did laps around the nearby pond, the Lac Puitouc, though they couldn’t fish there any more since a police captain from Kirkuk had fished the carp to extinction. There was nothing for them to do but think of leaving. That’s how anyone endured anything: boredom, filth, cold, fear. You can endure anything if you’re on your way to somewhere else.
In this case, it was England, which I discovered wondrous new things about. I learned that the Brits had an incredible welfare system, the best in Europe. I learned that minimum wage there was higher than in France. I learned that once you received British asylum, you were given a free house. I was told that the UK was full of good jobs, that it was less racist than any other European nation. That none of this was true didn’t dampen anybody’s incredible enthusiasm for the place. Among the French who worked in the camps, England was referred to as “leur rève Americain.” Their American Dream.
There were convincing reasons, too, with some basis in reality, for this fevered dreaming of Britain, which I had a hard time squaring with what these hopeful Kurds were putting themselves through to get there. It is easier to live invisibly in Britain, on the margins of things, than in France. In Britain, you don’t have to carry around photo ID. In Britain, you can easily find work in a kitchen or on a construction crew, if you’re open to being paid a pittance.
But facts are one thing, and narratives, another. The city of Dunkirk itself looms large in British mythology because of this very split. Over the course of one miraculous week in 1940, the British Navy managed to evacuate 340,000 Allied troops trapped on its beaches as the Germans drew close. Yet a few days later, Churchill delivered his rousing speech on the British virtues of endurance and determination (“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds. . .”), and Dunkirk, the site of failure averted, was turned into one of national victory. It was Britain that now occupied such a place in the story of Kurdish exile.
In years past, refugees had tried to reach England by hopping the Eurostar, only to end up getting killed by oncoming trains. Some had tried swimming the Channel, or paid to be dropped off in the middle of the Atlantic, timed so that they’d be spotted and picked up by passing ships. In the last few years, refugees entering Europe had taken to riding trucks, often with the help of smugglers.
“Smuggling,” to me, connoted efficiency, organization: a chartered van, a paid-off driver, cargo or contraband concealed inside children’s toys or in the fifth wheel of a car. But in Dunkirk, the smugglers ran a sloppy old racket, charging for something that was basically free: climbing onto the backs of trucks.
A few smugglers paid off truck drivers, but the cost (some eight thousand dollars per person, refugees told me) made this particular service prohibitively expensive. Instead, most smugglers charged refugees for a ride to truck parks three hours away, where they hustled them, ten or fifteen at time, onto the backs of vehicles whose drivers were snoozing or refueling. Refrigerated trucks had complex locks full of levers and dials that were difficult to tamper with and rarely opened up at the border. And police scanners, which ordinarily detect the number of heartbeats present in each vehicle, were ineffectual against these kinds of trucks, since the technology only worked above a certain temperature.
For this service, to be locked in a container full of yogurt or watermelons, the smugglers charged four thousand dollars per person. Those refugees who could afford only $1,500 were placed on dry trucks—trucks with soft sides or unlocked doors, full of electronics or sacks of potatoes—that would assuredly be searched at the border. This was the cheaper and significantly worse option, yet the risks were low: if you were caught, French police were likely to simply direct you back to the camp, and the law of averages ensured that a steady trickle of “economy-class” customers made it across the Channel thanks to good timing, baited breath, slow heartbeats, exhausted truck drivers, and luck.
Most of the smugglers were Kurds themselves, albeit ones who’d left their refugee days behind decades ago, having made it to England or France or Sweden in the late 1990s, during the wave of Kurdish immigration that followed the Gulf War. These Kurds had European passports, European apartments, European girlfriends. They were back to living like refugees, in the camps, indistinguishable from the genuine article, profiting off the misery of their countrymen, so that after all was said and done they could go back to living like proper Europeans.
To try and get onto a refrigerated truck without paying, or to enter a truck park without a smuggler’s permission, was suicide. Nobody I met had chanced it, yet everyone knew somebody who had. You ended up shot or stabbed. So the customers paid—and griped. The smugglers, who were supposed to verify where the trucks were headed by inspecting the serial numbers on the frozen produce, managed to botch even this straightforward task, often sending refugees to Holland or Spain instead of England. And they terrorized the camp, fighting incessantly with each other over contested truck parks. At least once a week someone was taken to the ER with gunshot or knife wounds.
It was a dubious product and horrible service. Customers were extorted, gouged, and intimidated, but there was no alternative. The smugglers were like airlines—a monopoly you depended on to get you places. The refugees tolerated them instead of denouncing them because otherwise, there was no getting anywhere at all.
In the mornings I saw them returning, hunched in a classic trudge, defeated and exhausted, with sleeping bags or children slung over their shoulders. I often saw the same faces, people who’d tried thirty times already to sneak over to England, and would try thirty times more. Among the unlucky ones who came back each morning, I regularly spotted a young man who’d taught high-school physics in Iraq. I was fond of him because I usually overheard him calling his mother (who still lived in Erbil) as he returned to the camp from his failed attempts. I could relate to that, calling my mother when things didn’t work out. Though I couldn’t understand what he was saying, he often sounded like he was pleading with her not to get angry. He had big velvety eyes and we were the same age.
In addition to being unlucky, the physics teacher was a pariah. None of the other refugees talked to him, so he often sat alone. Friendless, he took to hanging around the young French étudiants who came up from Paris to volunteer on weekends. I wondered if he was gay and had for that reason been ostracized, until I heard the French girls complaining about him and noticed myself the way he insisted on greeting them à la Française, a kiss on each cheek, one of which sometimes slid and wandered a bit. I pitied the physics teacher, though, because he’d been stuck at the camp eleven months, longer than anyone else I’d met.
Returning to camp one morning, he saw me as he finished his phone call to his mother. We had gotten to talking a bit—about physics, teaching, the American invasion of Iraq—and he’d taken to giddily bidding me farewell in the evenings, each time he left for the truck parks, as though this was the night he’d make it to England. It broke my heart to think that I’d see him again the following morning, which I invariably did. This particular morning, he confessed that he was thinking of returning to Kurdistan, but that he’d promised his mother he would try, first, to apply for asylum in France. He asked if I would help him. I’d been familiarizing myself with the byzantine asylum statute to assist some refugees who had a good shot at being granted asylum: a half-blind father of two who’d served as an interpreter for the US Infantry; a one-legged cook who’d rescued the black box of a downed RAF plane. I asked the physics teacher if he’d ever encountered persecution due to his ethnicity, religion, political leanings, sexual orientation, or profession—the five categories for which asylum is granted. He thought for a minute and told me that Kurdish police had killed someone at a political rally he had once attended.
“A friend of yours?”
“Does it help me?” he asked, “if he was my friend?”
I asked if he had some kind of proof of their friendship—Facebook exchanges, voicemails, emails—and he switched course: “My brother, do you know? One time he was trying to attack me with a knife. Because of religion.”
“Because of Islam?”
The physics teacher nodded solemnly. “Because I drink. Birra. Birra, during the Ramaddan.”
I had the picture now. If his brother had tried to stab him over beer, I couldn’t imagine what his mother was like.
“That must’ve been awful,” I said. “Your own brother.” He looked at me hopefully. But it didn’t fit the conditions. I told him I didn’t think it would help. His shoulders sank.
“What if I am homosexual?” he finally said.
The physics teacher shook his head. He had nothing. It was morning. We were sitting on a bench in one of the communal kitchens. He said he couldn’t sleep. He had cigarette ash in his hair. His eyes were red. We spent a few hours cooking up a story about his alleged homosexuality, and he agreed to talk to his mother and friends back in Irbil so that they’d vouch for him when the British Home Office eventually contacted them.
Later that day, I asked a young British law student who helped refugees in their various dealings with the police what she thought of cooking up asylum stories. She narrowed her eyes when I told her whom it was for.
He was a narc, she said.
“A narc? The physics teacher?”
“That’s why he doesn’t have any friends. He stinks. He’s a rat.”
“Then how come he’s not in England yet?”
“He narcs on everyone. Smugglers, too. Refugees. The only reason no one’s stabbed him yet is because they’re afraid he works for the police.”
But the physics teacher finally did make it to England, just a few weeks after I left the camp. I saw a picture of him on Facebook, drinking a beer at a pub in Leeds. I called to congratulate him and to discover how he’d done it. He told me he’d borrowed some money and paid a smuggler the difference to be put on a better truck. When I asked why he hadn’t done so earlier, he said he hadn’t wanted to pay so much. I asked about England. He told me it was cold, that his only friend was a “retarded man from Scotland,” and that he couldn’t apply for work until his refugee status was determined. He avoided other Kurds, whom he didn’t trust, and even Kurdish restaurants, he said. He ate Pakistani food instead.
Bad logic, futility, frustration: these are the shadows of all life, not just for refugees. In early June, a Kurdish interpreter was found floating in the Port of Dunkirk, drowned. He’d been drunk, and though the police later concluded that he’d fallen off the dock while urinating, it wasn’t clear, at first, whether his death had been an accident or suicide. We all hoped the former. Because everyone in Dunkirk felt despair at the thought of a thousand people pent up in tiny cabins, their lives and energy going to waste. One couldn’t help but imagine that the world’s problems might be solved if these people could have their lives back. It made those of us who’d come here by choice want to do everything possible to aid, innovate, plan, mobilize, construct—except that when this failed, we felt even worse than we had before.
Shortly after the doctor died, I met a Belgian volunteer who wanted to redirect some of the goodwill and attention being lavished on the Kurds to a neglected little camp just outside a village called Norrent-Fontes, an hour south of Dunkirk. This camp was full of refugees from the Horn of Africa, and the Belgian had conceived a plan to build a two-story structure for a group of Sudanese who were then living in a sagging, lice-infested army tent. He had a minivan and was, he said, putting together a crack team.
The camp in Norrent-Fontes was a muddy sprawl of tents and garbage. People who lived there slept six or eight to a camping tent or in “houses” that consisted of planks of wood held together with tarps, strips of garbage bags, and chicken wire. The ground in this place wasn’t merely littered with garbage, but consisted of it—plastic bags, ossified diapers, chicken bones, beer bottles—striate of trash that had been cemented into the earth, layer by layer, with rainfall and mud. There was just a single outhouse for two hundred people, and since it had begun to overflow, a nearby lettuce field had been serving as the public bathroom.
It was the middle of the day when the Belgian took me to see the Sudanese tent. It was huge, the size of a sunken circus pavilion. Inside were filthy blankets, muddy shoes, and a few sick people. A hunched, cheerful man with a chunky gold watch came crawling out, and the Belgian presented him to me as the Sudanese headman. He showed me his arm, which was dotted with small mounds, some of which were turning green. “Lice,” the Belgian said, before pulling out a sketch he’d made in his creamy notebook, for a duplex. It was a beautiful diagram, with clean, abstract lines. The Sudanese headman laughed and nodded and clasped his hands, utterly delighted, and asked if the Belgian could add an enclosed kitchen.
But the Belgian’s plans were derailed. The team of volunteers he’d brought over had decided to build a lean-to for a group of Eritrean teens who had been sleeping in the muddy woods. Among the volunteers was a French architect who’d hit it off with the Eritrean boys and stood chatting with them in Italian. When the Belgian tried to redirect everyone toward the Sudanese tent, the architect, who always had a little knife in his hands, since he was usually either whittling or coring apples, pointed his knife at the Belgian. He told him his plan for a duplex was grandiose and unmanageable, to which the Belgian responded by screaming that he had no compunctions about kicking the architect off his van, which he had driven all the way from Belgium. But the architect had already planted posts, leveled the ground, and dug four trenches. He folded his knife and returned to work. The Belgian had no choice but to tell the Sudanese headman that things had changed.
While the architect oversaw the construction of the lean-to, the Belgian took meetings around the camp—with the Ethiopians, with the Eritrean boss, with the now surly Sudanese headman—to take stock of what everyone needed. This camp was neglected but not entirely ignored. A local church sent parishioners each Saturday to pick up garbage and feces; police were often coming through, looking for smugglers and missing minors; municipal trucks rolled in every week with blankets, gas canisters, and medicine. Yet no one listened to these refugees quite like the Belgian did. He nodded at everything and wrote it all down in his notebook. Back in Belgium, he had a day job as an interior decorator and community theater director, and I wondered if it was purely accidental that he wore a red raincoat the same color and cut as official MSF flak jackets.
At the end of the week, the architect returned to Brittany, though the lean-to wasn’t quite finished. Then an American woman took the wrong measurements and the Belgian bought a sheet of tin that was half a foot too short for the structure we’d built. When the American suggested calling the architect for help improvising a solution, the Belgian threatened to kick her off the van, and she burst into tears. We tried bridging the gap in the roof with a wooden door someone had found, but the joining kept collapsing, and the Eritrean boys eventually stitched a few tarps together and draped them over the frame. We promised to return with another piece of tin, but back in Dunkirk the following morning, when we went looking for the Belgian, his van was nowhere to be seen. Someone told us he’d gone back to Kortrijk.
It was hard to know if we were really improving things. I thought often of a George Bernard Shaw play in which a character named Tavy complains, “It’s so hard to know what to do when one wishes earnestly to do right,” only to be tactfully admonished: “My dear Tavy, your pious English habit of regarding the world as a moral gymnasium built expressly to strengthen your character in occasionally leads you to think about your own confounded principles when you should be thinking about other people’s necessities.”
In Dunkirk, it was screamingly obvious that your own necessities weren’t what mattered, so you worked to meet the necessities of those unfortunates who lived there. But in spite of your best efforts, these necessities were so rarely met, or met so haphazardly and unevenly, that you constantly felt like returning to those things you could control, which were, in the end, your own necessities.
My last day in Dunkirk, I took one final walk around, and found myself toward the back of the camp when I heard children singing. I searched for the melodious little angels, but instead found a boy and girl, aged seven or eight, shrieking and crying while throwing rocks at a third—an older boy of nine or ten, who was pedaling away on a bike. What I had mistaken for music had been their high-pitched notes of pain.
This fast-vanishing boy was obviously a thief. I ran after him. When I grabbed him, we both tumbled to the ground. He screamed and struggled in my hands, but before I could do anything with him someone gripped me by the shoulder and whirled me around. It was a full-grown Kurdish adult male roaring at me in Kurmanji and English. My knees buckled. I was sure he was going to hit me. When I gestured frantically at the poor children standing in the road, the man stopped yelling and traded a look with the boy, who had picked up the bike and was brushing dirt from it.
“The bike,” I explained. “He stole the children’s bike.” But instead of scolding his boy—I understood, in the look that passed between them, that these two were father and son—or otherwise demonstrating that he had grasped my accusation, the Kurd seized me firmly by the wrist and took me to a nearby cabin with a dirty Iraqi flag planted on its roof and a dozen children’s bikes piled in the gravel all around it. Then he pointed down the road, to the spot from which the two wailing children had disappeared, and shouted, “Thief!”
In front of the cabin, a large man with a majestic white beard was sitting rigidly on a folding chair, staring into space. He looked like one of those enormous granite statues of fallen heroes that rumble to life when intruders enter the temple. The angry Kurdish father maintained his distance, even as he continued to point at the inert guardian and his hoard of bikes, shouting, “Thief! Thief!”
It hit me suddenly: those two wailing children had been the thieves. I felt myself burn up with shame. I looked at the boy, straddling his bike with affectionate possessiveness. He loved his bike; it was clearly his. I apologized to him. “I was wrong.” I put a hand over my heart. The boy looked questioningly at his father, who spat on the ground. “Son of fucking bitch,” he said, and the two of them walked away. My phone vibrated. It was time for me to go to London. My carpool was here.
A little less than a year after I left Dunkirk, I woke up one morning, back in Texas, to news that the camp had burned down.
That winter, an influx of Afghan refugees had been transferred from a shuttered camp in nearby Calais. With the Dunkirk camp already at capacity, the new arrivals were relegated to cramped sleeping quarters next to the communal kitchens. They immediately began to gripe about the Kurds’ more spacious cabins, and on the night of April 10, a group of them set fire to a few wooden huts. The fires spread, and the camp was destroyed.
Gymnasiums across the region were commandeered to shelter nine hundred of the 1,400 refugees who’d been living in the camp. The rest dissolved into the northern countryside, or headed for Paris or Calais, where they would attempt, one more time, to cross into England. A few injuries but no deaths. Buses lined up outside the gymnasiums to take the refugees to “Welcome Centers” across other parts of France, where those eligible for asylum would be fast-tracked for resettlement.
Watching videos of the fire—the all-consuming devastation, the army of firefighters fanning out in combat gear, the former inhabitants mutely watching the roaring blaze from the nearby highway—and of the ragged camp the morning after, still smoldering like an abandoned, half-smoked cigar, I experienced a strange déja vu. I was back where I’d begun, trying to process tragedies from the intermediaries of my phone and laptop, an ocean and a continent away. I thought of the endless cycle of violence and exile these Kurds had to endure. It had been an ugly camp. It was an ugly fire. At least their awful waiting, I told myself, was over now. They were freed from the deadening paralysis of purgatory. I felt almost a kind of relief—and then a tide of shame. What did I know about what was good for anyone?
While in London, I’d read a story by Guy de Maupassant about a middle-aged French bachelor who goes crazy after spotting a Brazilian three-mast on the river near his house and waving at it. Nothing made sense in this story, which is why I liked and remembered it. Soon after his encounter with the boat, the narrator starts getting fevers, has trouble sleeping, feels like he’s being watched. Eventually, he can no longer make out his own reflection in the mirror and becomes completely alien to himself. Rather than wonder if he’s losing his marbles, he becomes convinced that he’s been possessed by an invisible being that dwells onboard the three-mast, which he calls Le Horla (a portmanteau of “hors,” which means “outside,” and “la,” which means “here”). The outside-here. To rid himself of the Horla, the narrator sets fire to his house, burning his domestics alive in the process. Soon, he contemplates suicide.
Early in the story, he meets a monk at Mont Saint Michel, the island church in the North Atlantic. He asks the friar about the invisible things in the world, and the monk responds with a question of his own: “Do we see the hundred-thousandth part of what exists? Look here: there is the wind, which is the strongest force in nature. It knocks down men, and blows down buildings, uproots trees, raises the sea into mountains of water, destroys cliffs and casts great ships on to the breakers; it kills, it whistles, it sighs, it roars. But have you ever seen it, and can you see it? Yet it exists for all that.”
I was a free person in a free city, looking back all the same, turning Dunkirk over in my head, trying to glean lessons, straining the data into information. But it was squeezing water from a stone. The strongest forces in nature, the things that went knocking people down, blowing down buildings—despite their being everywhere, they were hard to name.