The death and despair of African refugees in Europe may be unlikely material for a lyrical novel about life and hope, but that’s what Helon Habila has done in his new book, Travelers. Almost all the characters are refugees, and the one who is most focused on, an unnamed Nigerian man, starts out safely in the U.S., but after a series of accidents lands in an Italian detention camp.
Each person is emotionally scarred by what they’ve endured, perhaps worst of all Juma: “I was in Niger for over six months. We were kept in an open field, over ten thousand of us … living in a place the size of a secondary school … The mosquitoes were everywhere because it was the rainy season … And every day people died like flies.” Juma hides out in London, having escaped migrant detention. But the police search for him relentlessly, and so do anti-immigrant fanatics.
Much of Travelers takes place in Berlin, where the characters’ lives intersect. The most poignant portrait is Manu, a Libyan former surgeon who’s now a nightclub bouncer, as he supports his young daughter. They live at a refugee house and every Sunday visit Checkpoint Charlie, their designated meeting place with Manu’s wife, arranged when they fled Libya. Another refugee tells Manu to face reality: His wife and young son drowned in the Mediterranean. But the reader can’t help hoping he won’t. “If they keep their memories alive,” Manu thinks, “then nothing has to die.”
Manu stands out in the novel’s refugee group. The lines of his face testify “to what he had left behind, to the borders and rivers and deserts he had crossed to get to Berlin.” His weekly pilgrimages to Checkpoint Charlie are heartbreaking, another reminder of all he has lost—his town, his neighbors, his patients, his wife, his son, his medical career. And yet he does not despair. He goes faithfully every Sunday to the meeting place, he cares for his daughter, and he holds down his job as a bouncer. He moves forward unhealing in the cold world that has robbed him of so much.
Everyone in this novel endures “the bone-chilling winter of exile,” and several of them—Manu and Karim, who fled Somalia with his wife and five children to Yemen, Syria, Turkey, Bulgaria, and finally Germany—owe their suffering to U.S. wars. Manu’s Libya devolved from a very prosperous African nation to a failed state with open-air enslaving markets, thanks to Western bombs. Karim encounters lethal violence and religious fanaticism in Somalia and Syria, a country riven by civil war and Western intervention. Though Travelers never shows this explicit link, it details horrors that trace directly back to U.S. foreign policy.
These desperate refugees also face bigotry in Europe, and thus they cling to each other. Many locals “felt threatened, their daughters and sons were not safe on the streets where refugees sold drugs, got drunk and fought; the aliens had turned the entire street into a dumpster, trash everywhere.” Particularly awful and dangerous is “the Jungle,” the infamous refugee camp in Calais. But Travelers does not deal in stereotypes. Everyone in this novel is unique and complicated.
The book begins focused on young rebellious refugees in Berlin, and their protests and clashes with police: “How long before they saw the world as it is, vile and cruel and indifferent, how long before they … joined the rest of humanity swimming in what Flaubert described as a river of shit …” The young rebels are exceptions among the refugees. In six months or a year they can return to their studies or their families. For Manu, Juma, and Karim, there is no going back. Their homes have been destroyed. And they know from their experiences with human traffickers how vile and cruel and indifferent the world can be. Behind them are ruins, and ahead of them is an unwelcoming Europe, and nothing but hope to keep them going.