The recent events in West George St. in Glasgow, resulting in the stabbing of 6 individuals by a Sudanese man in a hotel requisitioned by the Home Office to house asylum seekers during the Covid -19 lock down, reminded me of two things – one in the distant past and one in a book that I have been reading recently.
When I was almost 4 years old my parents took the £10 assisted passage to Australia as part of the British and Australian governments’ scheme to encourage young families to emigrate to seek a better life and escape the depression of post second world war Britain. We embarked from Southampton together with many other families on a converted troop ship, the SS Chitral, shown in the picture. The voyage to Sydney lasted six weeks during which there was a major measles outbreak amongst the children on board. On arrival in Sydney, we were all taken to converted woolsheds where families were temporarily housed in a large shed separated by curtains into living spaces for individual groups. The idea was that you moved on when jobs and housing were found in whatever part of Australia these could be attained. The reality of the arrival in the “promised land” was very different from the propaganda films shown by the British government of happy, smiling families living in well appointed houses in the “New World’! The Australians referred to the immigrants as “Poms” and for the first time in my life, I felt that I was something ‘other’ in an alien land.
I have recently been reading the account of the author Primo Levi’s experience of being captured in the second world war in Italy and as a Jew taken to the Auschwitz complex of concentration camps. In his book “If this is a Man” he describes the descent of intelligent, civilised men and women into a primal beastly existence in which you are only known by the number tattooed on your arm and your only motivation is to endure. All civilised behaviour is set aside and forgotten in the daily grind to survive.
The point I want to make is that when one is in a new and strange environment and having to cope with baffling rules and regulations generated by a faceless bureaucracy, not only do you feel ‘other’ and vulnerable but you may behave in ways that you would not contemplate in normal circumstances especially if depression and anxiety are prominent. This does not condone the violence in the hotel in West George St. but it may explain why it occurred.
The Bible has a lot to say about strangers and aliens and in the Old Testament the Israelites are constantly reminded that they were once aliens in the land of Egypt and that therefore they had a duty to treat aliens kindly:
34 “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
Leviticus 19:34 (NRSV).
In the New Testament, Jesus goes out of his way to minister to the marginalised and aliens in society. His encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (Jews hated Samaritans) where he spoke to her deepest need (John 4:5-26), and his loving, healing touch for lepers who were regarded as anathema (Luke 5:12,13) are examples of this.
The seventeenth century Christian poet John Donne in “For Whom the bell tolls” reminds us that we all have a responsibility for each other and that human beings are all interconnected.
For Whom the bell tolls
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.