Heroism and hope – ‘still breathing’

By Saskia Jenelle Maarsen    The other day I was listening to the song ‘Alive’[1] performed by Sia. Sorrow, resilience and fierceness can be heard when Sia screams that she is still breathing and alive. The story conveyed reminds me of Adi for he ‘was born in a thunder-storm’[2]My ‘brother’ Adi is one of the undocumented refugees who have become an important part of my life. I vividly remember the day I met him; a beaten up and lonely soul. When I looked into his eyes I felt his worry and anguish and I recall this pressing urgency to connect with him.

Alcohol was Adi’s dear and loyal friend for twenty years. This friend helped him cope with the vivid images of people being burned to death in his motherland, with overcoming brutal psychical and mental beatings obtained while surviving the streets in his new found land and with handling the indignity of everyday exclusion; ‘And nothing in the ground can ever grow’. However, eventually he realized his friend would suffocate the soul out of his life.

‘I had a one-way ticket to a place where all the demons go’. One of the consequences of surviving outside democracy is the difficulty of getting proper health and psychological care. After much encouragement of a lawyer’s assistant and a lot of negotiations with health care providers Adi decided to get help. He received help for only three days, so ultimately, it was up to him. Against all odds, he needed to take back the reins, facing the existential violations of the self head on. He realized he had to make the courageous sacrifice of giving up the warm embrace of the mind altering substance, leaving behind this symbiotic relationship between survival and numbness.

I was there to witness it.

He took this gigantic existential leap of faith.

‘Like the love that comes with light’.

It took my breath away.

While holding on to our hearts as not to jinx it, he was learning to walk tall.

His emotional integrity gave his feet the courage to touch fertile ground. I feel intense gratitude for witnessing his change in narrative; he turned away a loyal friend who served him for many year, facing a future without knowing who would comfort him in return. That is a brave act; he took the leap into the unknown territory of sobriety and his refusal to succumb to alcohol alleviated his pain and gave him strength to face his trauma induced nightmares. ‘But I survived’. It never seems to amaze me how resilient someone can be. Adi is a reminder that giving up on people is never an option.

‘I’m alive’. Life is still difficult and will continue to be so, but Adi can now feel blood running through his abused body, uneven cobblestones under his feet, the encouraging touch of the hand on his knee and compassion from the people around him. He is a good person surviving the banality of cruelty by challenging it with the banality of hope. That takes my breath away.

‘I’m still breathing’; that to me is pure heroism.

[1]’,Performed by artist Sia, written by Sia, Adele and Tobias Jesso Jr

[2] All quotes in this blog are taken from the song ’Alive’

Saskia Jenelle Maarsen is a Master student Social and Cultural Anthropology at the VU. She conducted her fieldwork in Amsterdam within the social movement We Are Here. Her focus was directed towards the volunteers. She was interested in how their engagement with the undocumented refugees shape their perception of human dignity.

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