I have handed over my passport to custom agents on a number of occasions in the last few weeks. Custom agents are a tedious bunch, cloned around the world to spew the same humdrum of questions…
“What is the purpose of your trip?” Wha….wawawawawawawawa?
Never…“Are you new in town? I know this great bar you should check out.”
A passport is 8-10 pages of expensive paper bound together with a code-bar, a photograph, a few identifying features. Hardly worth the fuss. Yet we fuss over it. You check and recheck that you have it in your purse before you set out on a trip. A tinge of anxiety creeps in as you hand it over to the custom agent. You feel all grown up when your parents trust you with it for the first time. Your heart sinks as you realize that your passport is hostage at a reception desk in a coastal hotel in Corsica as you are about to embark on a boat to Sardinia.
A 24-year old boy from Iran ended up in my emergency department a few months ago after being toppled over from his bike by a car. Cars always win. He was tight-lipped, and would say very little when asked questions. The nurses worried he had sustained a brain injury. But he had not. Except for the shiny, bloody abrasions on his face and arms, he did not even break a bone. As I was suturing his cuts, I asked him what he was doing in Canada.
“You’re from Iran?”
“Why don’t you have a health-card?”
He pauses, sizes me up. “I am here illegally”
That’s when I pause. I am familiar with the situation. The stamp of the Islamic Republic of Iran on a passport, as shiny as it may be, denies you visas to most countries. It creates the delusion that you are up to no good, a terrorist or unworthy of a passage to the USA, until proven otherwise.
“How did you get out?”
“I bought a fake passport”
“How much was it?”
Passports. We’ve made them worth the fuss. They can be your ticket to a new life, to travel and work opportunities. Without them you might be prey to systemic violence, isolation, and despair. That is the predicament of countless displaced people in our world, an official estimate placing them at 40 million. Palestinians. Rohingya refugees from Myanmar caught without refugee status in Bangladesh. Those displaced by the waging wars in the Central Republic of Africa, Sudan and countless other countries. Those flocking into Dubai for subsistence, forced away from their homes by constraining living conditions.
“Where you scared?”
“No. I did not care. I had nothing to lose.”
These millions live at the periphery of our “civilized” world, “living off our waste”. Some have no access to shelter, food, or health care. Most of us know of their existence and we rather not think about them. However, no matter how hard we try to remain oblivious, they eventually make it into our backyard, as the Rwandan refugee that comes into the emergency department haunted by the image of her slain mother, or the friend at a dinner party that shares her memories of fleeing from Vietnam on refugee boats. Someday we might end up living at the periphery of civilization. You might think that seems farfetched as you stare at your computer screen, toying with your coffee mug. But history toys with us all.
Here is to a world where our humanity is the only passport we need. Citizen of planet earth.
This citizen still has no idea when she will be going to PNG. Killing me softly while I carouse in Sardinia and Corsica. I am off to Amsterdam tomorrow.