The Man Fighting Europe’s Anti-Syrian Refugee Sentiments Through Comics
Last Friday, the final part of A Perilous Journey, a three-part comic series depicting the stories of three Syrians fleeing for Europe, was launched at the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo, Norway.
That same evening, Paris was rocked by multiple terror attacks leaving 129 people dead and more than 300 injured, becoming the worst terrorist attack to take place on European soil in over a decade.
The reports that one of the men involved in the Paris attacks may have posed as a refugee—later shown to be untrue—has fueled an increasingly negative attitude towards asylum seekers, one that was not nearly as pervasive after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January.
This climate makes last week’s release of A Perilous Journey, which was commissioned by the human rights group Norwegian People’s Aid, to encourage its government to accept more migrants, seem not only extremely idealistic, but poorly timed.
“The day after we celebrated the launch of our comics in Oslo—the Paris attacks occurred. Our contributors, who had joined us to celebrate, were greatly saddened to see the carnage in the news,” A Perilous Journey’s creator Benjamin Dix told The Daily Beast in a phone interview.
“But they also felt the chill which comes over all ordinary Muslims, and especially refugees, when such atrocities occur: knowing that many in the west are too inattentive or intellectually lazy to differentiate between Muslims, refugees and terrorists.”
The three main characters in A Perilous Journey, Khalid, Mohammed, and Hasko, are all based on real-life accounts of refugees that Dix interviewed. Given different names so as to protect their identities, Dix says he allows his subjects to take part in the editing process. “It is their story and not mine to interpret, but to tell.”
A Perilous Journey comes at a crucial time for migrants, who are increasingly being viewed with suspicion not only in France, but all over the world, including in the U.S. where many Republican governors have called on Syrian refugees to be barred from their states.
“There are so many ordinary Syrians who have learned more about the extremes of human experience than we can imagine. Many of them have an appreciation and gratitude for life which is pathetically lacking in our culture,” Dix says.
Dix hopes that amidst the media frenzy and growing anti-refugee sentiments, a comic portraying the personal plight of three refugees who are also the victims of Islamic terrorism, can become an unexpected counter to mainstream noise.
A British anthropologist and former UN aid worker, Dix is the founder and director of Positives Negatives, a non-profit that “produce[s] literary comics about contemporary social and human rights issues,” according to its website.
“In this media-saturated world, we are often presented issues in a ‘Us vs. Them’ format, when the issues are far more complex,” says Dix. The graphic novel format “transcends and deconstructs mainstream media’s portrayal of a group like refugees, which are in the millions, by presenting individual stories” because “following a character for a few pages can be more powerful than statistics or photographs on the web.”
Dix recalls his time in Sri Lanka, where he discovered two politically-themed graphic novels, Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Joe Sacco’s Palestine, while taking shelter in a bunker during the Sri Lankan Civil War. He was struck by the graphic novel’s unique ability to transcend human rights and social issues in a way journalism could not.
“Up until then, my experience of comics was limited to Calvin and Hobbes. This was completely different,” Dix says.
While also in Sri Lanka, Dix experienced a pivotal interaction with a young woman that ultimately convinced him that personal stories were needed in order to create a more nuanced and relatable historical record.
“I was playing chess with a young female Tamil fighter. She was a lovely persona—intelligent, elegant, and her hair, like most of the women in Sri Lanka, smelled of jasmine,” Dix remembers. A few days later, Dix discovered that she had blown herself up.
“I was distraught,” he says. “Here was someone who I spent time with, talked to, and on the surface appeared quiet and kind, yet had a deep violence inside of her.”
Upon leaving Sri Lanka, Dix struggled to find a way to convey the complex, contrasting elements of the sweet-smelling young woman, as well as to cope with his own case of PTSD. But he was determined to do something to honor the war-ravaged people he left behind.
“There was no doubt that a comic was the perfect medium to tell these stories in a personal and powerful way. I wanted to reach a wider audience and knew, from reading Sacco and Spiegelman that this was the only way,” Dix says.
That led him to write his first graphic novel, The Vanni, an examination of a Sri Lankan family seeking refuge in Europe.
Since then, Dix has continued to produce graphic novels as a means to advocate and educate the public about human rights issues. He undertook the subject of Syrian refugees in 2013, conducting interviews with various individuals connected to the mass, panicked emigration, including people-smugglers.
As with his previous graphic novels, The Vanni and Meet The Somalis (which, as its title suggests, is about the Somali immigrant community in Europe), Dix’s intention with The Perilous Journey was the same: present a human story that could offer a different perspective, so often lost in the barrage of news reports about the millions fleeing Syria.
Dix hopes that his new graphic series can dissipate these hostile attitudes towards refugees. He points out that those depicted in The Perilous Journey “are also the victims of ISIS, and have suffered just as much if not more.”
“Their lives have been stripped down to the absolute fundamentals—and what remains is dignity. That’s what makes our uncharitable, cowardly response to the migrant crisis so shameful. We seem to think it’s our crisis, when in fact it is theirs,” Dix says. “I hope people will see that and take it to heart.”