Being a good citizen can mean two things: either to be lawful or to act righteous. Sometimes, it is hard to do both.
Encountering despair in our comfort zone
As the train was just about to leave, a young man jumped through the closing doors. With a creaky and unsteady voice, he began to tell everyone who would listen or not about the hardships in his life and what made him beg for money and live on the streets of Berlin. I was on my way home from a very long day at work, music in my ears and my book in my hands.
As in any big city, this is a daily occurrence. Everyone needs to figure out their own way of dealing with it. But I’m sure this stands for almost everyone who encounters homeless people in their daily lives: one way or the other, without meaning harm by it, you try to not let it affect you and you become somewhat, subconsciously, immune. I would have never thought this could even be possible.
Glancing up from my book, I looked at him, not being able to understand him clearly through my music. But I was instantly shocked by his age. He could not have been older than 16. Frantically and without thinking, I reached into my pocket and found just some small coins. I remember that I apologised when I gave him the little money I had on me. I was trying to figure out what circumstances had, at this young age, forced him to live on the streets.
When it was my stop, he also exited with me, some doors away. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that he plunged down on a bench on the completely empty platform and started to cry bitterly. It was a sound you don‘t want to hear. And I just stood there, stopping dead on my way to my warm, cosy home. I wanted to go and talk to him, but whilst trying to form words or questions, I asked myself what I could give him and what he probably wanted. I thought what he needs and wants is a warm bed, food, a place to wash his clothes. But I didn‘t live alone, I had five housemates to have a say in allowing a complete stranger to enter our home. I wasn‘t capable of watching him, I had to go to work in less than 10 hours. I didn‘t know him.
Then, trying to make myself feel better about letting my inconvenience block me, I thought — well, shouldn‘t there be an infrastructure so that kids like him do not have to live on the streets? And I tried to convince myself that it wasn‘t my responsibility. That I wasn‘t a chicken, that I had good reasons not to leave my comfort zone. I was so paralysed, I did nothing. Getting home never felt so sad as it did that night.
Outlaws or Heroes?
Raphaël Krafft, a French radio journalist, has told Reveal, the Centre for Investigative Reporting, his story about when he decided to leave his comfort zone. When covering the migrant crisis in Ventimiglia, Italy, there came a moment when he knew he needed to be a citizen before he can be a journalist.
At the border town he had met Ibrahim, a Sudanese refugee, whose dream it was to go to university in France. He was dreaming of France with a passion that flattered Raphaël. After hearing about Ibrahim‘s failed attempts, his never-ending optimism in the face of French policemen escorting him back every single time, Raphaël decided to help him. In a difficult track across the Alps, Raphaël and another French man named Thomas helped Ibrahim and his friend Ahmad reach France. They did not consider themselves smugglers, though they knew that they were stretching the limits of what was legal.
Cédric Herrou, a French farmer, has become a symbol and rebel in the legal grey area of helping migrants. He has helped numerous people trying to reach humane living conditions, having been through hell in Lybia and detention camps on the European outskirts. Cédric has repeatedly faced fines and prison charges.
Like Raphaël, he saw a tragedy occurring right at his door step and didn‘t look away – or didn‘t stop caring. He helped undocumented foreigners cross into France. He saw the greatest danger in the heavily controlled border itself, which forced people to live under inhumane conditions. Some consider him a militant, others see him as heroic. “One man‘s terrorist is another man‘s freedom fighter“ somewhat applies.
Pierre-Alain Mannoni, a geography professor, spent 36 hours in jail in October 2016 because he had helped three Eritrean women cross the border in the Alps. “They had been walking 12 hours and they required medical attention.” Two of them were immediately sent back to Italy. The third, a minor, was sent to a separate facility.
All three cases come down to the question of legitimacy. Who has the right to intervene? When are the horrors you see or hear becoming so overwhelming that breaking the law does not hinder your actions? And where do you draw the line? Isn‘t the government also failing in the case of minors living on the street?
No state in the Western hemisphere can function without a significant part of its citizens engaged in charity work and unpaid social commitment. When does lawlessness out of empathy and humanity become anarchy? Do we all have roughly the same moral compass? And who has the right to decide that your moral compass is leaning a tad too much towards ‘lawlessness‘?
The danger of criminalising humanitarian action
The protocol against the smuggling of migrants by land, sea, air supplementing the UN Convention against transnational organised crime states that smuggling is illegal – in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, money or benefits. I personally don‘t think the question is one of legality. Don’t we live on a continent, where there should be enough room for careful distinctions? The preamble of the UN protocol states that this it is set in place to “provide migrants with humane treatment and full protection of their rights (…) and security.“ Is it not exactly this void, that people like Herrou, Krafft and Mannoni are trying to fill?
I have never seen the homeless boy again. But not a day goes by that I don‘t think about him on my way to or from work, and I am embarrassed. I think that now I am better equipped. I would know what to do. Krafft said in an interview that it wasn‘t a snap decision to help Ibrahim and Ahmad. He needed time to process, outweigh his morals against his responsibilities and his personal liability.
In my case, I am not even talking about breaking the law. I am merely talking about taking a leap of faith for someone whose luck had run out, contrary to mine.
I did ask myself repeatedly how it is possible in Germany for a boy to fall through the cracks like this? But to be completely honest, going home after this incident made me all the more grateful for the life I have been living — while at the same time well aware of my sheer luck of birth, knowing I had no real “right“ to live this way, and others another way.
When Krafft’s group crossed the border in the Col de Fenestre, reaching France through the Northern Italian Alps, they stumbled upon a memorial plaque right at the border which read:
Through this path in September 1943, hundreds of Jews from all over Europe attempted, often in vain, to escape antisemitic persecution.
You who cross freely, remember this each time you tolerate that someone else doesn‘t enjoy the same rights you have.
I think with this, the French-Italian Alps and History have argued the case of when it‘s good to be lawful, and when you need to act where governments fail. It is dangerous to criminalise and de-legalise humanitarian and altruistic actions in the face of despair and inhumanity.