You hear their steps at dawn and at dusk. They don’t stop. Through the darkness of the cold night and in the shadows of the midday sun, at every hour of the day, a universe of people is on a constant journey. Crossing fences, seas, deserts and borders. Forging new routes and treading long-worn paths. Tireless, unstoppable.
Today, more than 65 million people live in continuous displacement. An entire world in movement. Never before in human history has the earth seen so many involuntary travelers. Just in 2016, 31 million people were forced to abandon their homes and move away in other direction on account of violence, hunger or harrowing climate conditions.
The fact of moving to survive collides head-on with another violent reality: the reality of the wall. Never before in our history have we lived in a world so divided and compartmentalized. So fragmented. We live in a complex labyrinth of borders and demarcations. Every year, we produce half a million tons of barbwire that is eight million kilometers of fences, or enough to circle the earth 200 times.
As if these walls were not enough, Europe is surrounded by a deadly moat of water. In 2017, more than 3,000 women, men and children disappeared in the Mediterranean sea waters. We will never know the true numbers; for every body recovered on the coast, another six disappear forever, swallowed up by the sea. Only these individuals’ absence in their homes —in the memories of their fathers, mothers, sisters, lovers and loved ones— makes evident that they are no longer there. Their absence, their memory.
“Never before in our history have we lived in a world so divided and compartmentalized. So fragmented. Every year, we produce half a million tons of barbwire that is eight million kilometers of fences, or enough to circle the earth 200 times”.
From this journey of epic dimensions, we only see the pictures of those perched on the wire fences, those who drown in the treacherous waters of the Mediterranean or those who are saved. Little is said about those who are trapped in shameful detention centers —jails and refugee camps— and Kafkaesque bureaucratic processes that get stalled for years due to a lack of agreement between European countries. Little is said about the families separated by mountains of paper, living at the mercy of meetings of politicians. Many minors wander the capitals of Europe, looking to support themselves but also creating alternatives and devising new societies in those same city streets.
We are not yet aware of —or even have the perspective or dimension to measure— the impact of these mass migrations and human exoduses. Still, we have an intuition that the world we know is ending or changing or turning into something entirely new.
This human exodus, this unprecedented migration, not only in Europe but all over the planet, is a symptom of the fact that the world we know is forever changed. That it needs solidarity and tenderness. However, it also conflicts with politics, with the growing discourse of hatred spreading in Europe, with fanaticism and fundamentalism, with the business of outsourcing borders, weapons and the economy.
As all this is happening, nothing stops the determined, decisive, brave and firm steps of those who have still yet to come or those who have just embarked. They traverse mountains, spend their nights in trains and cross borders. We hear very little news about the smells and flavors of these forced odysseys.
Right now, at this very moment, as you read these lines, a young woman has given her mother one last kiss on the cheek before setting out on a journey without return. Right now, several dozen young people have just piled into an inflatable raft in an attempt to cross the ocean. Entire families are sinking right now in boats in the Aegean and the Mediterranean, risking their lives at the hands of mafias and human traffickers. Several million fathers and mothers are now flying above our heads, multitudes of children half-playing, half-bored during long waits at international airports. All of them are following in the footsteps of others, but they are also creating new paths. And if one door is closed, they open another further on. It may be more dangerous, more audacious. Less safe. But they will find a way.
All these millions of people, together with you and me, will find a way to cross a border, to forge a new path. Without a doubt. Because together we share a weapon, a powerful tool, a device that opens all doors and motivates and encourages these people to keep moving forward, urging them not to give up, giving them energy, clothing them in the night and telling them “yes, take another step”. This tool is IMAGINATION.
What sets us apart as a species and makes human beings special is not our intelligence; it is our imagination. It is not about knowing how to carve a stone, use a tool or till and cultivate the earth. It is not even about knowing how to speak and communicate. What sets us apart is the desire for a better world. Imagining and creating, inventing, devising, drawing, writing, narrating, shaping, coloring, composing music…
“What sets us apart as a species and makes human beings special is not our intelligence; it is our imagination”.
Art and design often give shape to concepts that do not exist in the world —or that do not exist until will we capture them on a sheet, on a print, in a digital format or in a limestone cavern. What makes us truly special is our ability to name creatures, ideas and concepts that only exist in our minds. With imagination, we can cross any border. We can always dream or ramble on what about the other side of the fence or wall is like, about whom or what might be there on the other side.
The yearning to go further and know more is limitless; it is insatiable and pushes us to make the world a better place, even if we are not always victorious or successful in our endeavors. We often forget that many of the young exile-seekers we abandon at the gates of Europe could be the Pablo Picassos, the García Lorcas, the Pablo Nerudas, the Albert Einsteins, the Freddy Mercurys or the Vladimir Nabokovs of their places of origin. All the men on this list were brilliant minds who fled, went into exile and later changed the way we see the world. They were given the opportunity to contribute something, to push the world an inch towards a new direction. Most of them, like those millions of forced journeyers, travel light, nothing in their pockets and suitcases. But their great baggage, their enormous load, is what they carry with them on their shoulders and in their heads: the heritage of ancestral cultures, languages, music —and all of the new ideas and dreams that come with them.
Movement and the crossing of borders represent the new, the avant-garde, modernity, creation, invention, light and harmony, fusion and symbiosis. That is to say: the pure essence of life. Creating. Being born. Giving birth to something that did not exist. Imagination and art are the foundation of all other sciences like medicine, engineering and justice. The artist or designer who has overcome the blank page is a winner. They have taken the leap into the unknown. They are acrobats. They are brave. They have triumphed in their task before they started, because they already imagined the result. They are all people with tremendous energy and momentum. With all of them is the powerful force of imagining. A terribly revolutionary act. Going a step beyond.