True, in order to save your life—for example, as militants assault your village—you might first speed away by whatever conveyance possible. In the family car. Or in your neighbor’s fruit truck. Aboard a stolen bus. Inside a cart pulled behind a tractor. But eventually: a border. And it is here that you must walk. Why? Because men in uniforms will demand to see your papers. What, no papers? (Did you leave them behind? Did you grab your child’s hand instead, in that last frantic moment of flight? Or perhaps you packed a bag with food, with money?) It doesn’t matter. Get out of your vehicle. Stand over there. Wait. Now, papers or no papers, your life as a refugee genuinely starts: on foot, in the attitude of powerlessness.
In late September near the Mürşitpınar border crossing in Turkey, Syrian refugees came pouring across the fallow pepper fields by the tens of thousands. They were ethnic Kurds. They were running from the bullets and knives of the Islamic State. Many came in cars, in sedans and hatchbacks, in delivery vans and pickup trucks, raising clouds of fine, white dust from some of the oldest continuously farmed fields in the world. The Turks would not allow such a motley caravan to pass. A parking lot of abandoned cars grew at the boundary. One day black-clad Islamist fighters came and got the cars, stole them from right under the noses of Turkish soldiers. The soldiers watched. They couldn’t have cared less.
So it begins. You take a step. You exit one life and enter another. You walk through a cut border fence into statelessness, vulnerability, dependency, and invisibility. You become a refugee.