Oliver Balch

The immigrant’s experience of Europe

Interviewing the Continent’s refugees and poorest rural inhabitants, Ben Judah reveals a world far removed from Brussels politics or Eurovision optimism

Ben Judah. [Alexandra Chan]

Meet Ibrahim, from Syria. He fled Aleppo just before the bombs began to fall. A clean $4,000 in cash to a smuggler got him a fake passport and, voilà, a ticket to Europe – briefly in Greece, then in Germany (‘the people, they looked different’), now in Spain. Immigrant life was tough at first: the strange language, the alien norms, the overt racism. ‘He was not on their level. Just a refugee.’ Then a lucky break. He starred in a homemade porn video that went viral: ‘100 per cent real Arab bull.’ Next, he’s earning close to a seven-figure salary, owns a flash car and has women dripping off his arm.

In Ben Judah’s illuminating depiction of modern-day Europe, almost everyone has a dream. Of the 23 personal narratives around which This Is Europe is built (each character gets his or her own chapter), almost half belong to refugees. The remainder herald from the peripheries, either geographic (Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia’s frozen north) or socio-economic (poor, low-skilled, rural). As a collective, longing defines them: a wish for a better future, an aspiration for a happier present.

So, does Europe deliver? Does this continent of nearly 750 million people have the space and solidarity for all its residents, whatever their background, to flourish? It’s the question Szilvia asks herself as she works a dead-end supermarket job in a backwater Hungarian town (only the occasional store invasion by wild dogs shakes her from the sense that ‘she could be anywhere’). Then there’s Aboud, living constantly by the clock, stealing an hour or two with his chronically depressed wife before it’s back to his Amazon delivery van and Berlin’s unfriendly suburbs. And Ionut, the Romanian trucker who longs to swap his life of gruelling motorways and grubby lorry parks for a career as a singer.

Ibrahim’s success story, it turns out, is the exception.

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