John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of a poor farming family from Oklahoma that leaves its home during the Dust Bowl and flees to California, where its members hope to find jobs, but only find hatred. These types of stories abounded during the Dust Bowl, as some 2.5 million farmers left the Midwest, often under duress or against their will. Around half a million of these families, mostly from Oklahoma and Arkansas, travelled to California, the “Promised Land,” where they could find work – or so they believed. Instead, these families, like Steinbeck’s characters, the Joads, found that the Californian natives regarded them with hostility and resentment stemming from a fear of losing their jobs or their property. The Joads and thousands of other families like them drifted from place to place, hardening against the hatred that they face, as they searched for a place to call home (Steinbeck 282-284). This theme of struggling to find refuge is still relevant today. The civil war in Syria has forced millions of people from their homeland. They stream into nearby countries: Iraq, Turkey, Jordan. Although they are fleeing over country borders instead of state, the Syrian and “Okie” refugees both fit Steinbeck’s theme of searching for refuge; forced from their homes, they struggle to survive in an environment and among a people that face them with growing hostility.
Just as hundreds of thousands of Midwestern farmers unwillingly left their ancestral land during the Dust Bowl, nearly six million Syrians have been pushed from their homeland over the past three years by the civil war that tears their country apart (Vick 24). Steinbeck makes it clear that his characters, and the real people of the time, feel very reluctant to leave their homes, no matter how poor the land, and angry that they must. When the tenants learn that they have to leave, they grow angry. “It’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours,” they cry angrily (Steinbeck 33). Still, the all-powerful bank manages to drive them off, sometimes physically. In the same way, many native Syrians are forced out by the violence and chaos and the mounting shortages of food, medicine, and other necessities that affect Syria (Butler 44). Although they are glad to be alive, these refugees do not want to be in their current situation. “We are now in Turkey,” says one refugee. “We don’t want to be here. We want to go home, we want to fight” (Abouzeid 28). However despite the desires of both Syrian and “Okie” refugees, they cannot go home yet. Instead, both find shelter in camps set up by the government. For example, approximately eighty-three thousand Syrians have found refuge in Za’atari, one of the largest refugee camps set up in Lebanon (Vick 24). The United Nations control and run it, just as the US government created Hooverville, a camp where the Joads find refuge for some time. Both groups find discontent in their current situations, but they must bear it.In both of these cases, the refugees are not the only ones who are upset; the locals of the land they are invading are increasingly hostile to their “invasion.” Most of the individuals in California, where many of these migrant famers fled during the dust bowl, disliked the “Okies,” some to the point of hate. As Steinbeck writes:
The owners hated them because the owners knew they were soft and the Okies strong, they were fed and the Okies hungry; and perhaps the owners had heard from their grandfathers how easy it is to steal land from a soft man if you are fierce and hungry and armed. And the shopkeepers hated them because they had no money to spend … The town men, little bankers, hated Okies because there was nothing to gain from them … And the laboring people hated Okies because a hungry man must work, and if he must work, if he has to work, the wage payer automatically gives him less for his work; and then no one can get more. (Steinbeck 233)
This tension and hostility appears in almost every interaction between the natives and these new “Okies.” This theme of clash between new and foreign is not confined to Steinbeck’s writing, and it appears in the current Syrian refugee crisis. The burden of millions of refugees has mainly fallen to Middle Eastern countries with poorer infrastructure and less money than North American and European nations. This has strained everything from roads to electricity grids to water supplies. Social tensions have grown noticeably as well over the past few years, exacerbated by inflation and competition for jobs that Syrian refugees are often willing to do for less money. “Jordanians and people in much of the Middle East are very welcoming and very accommodating to the idea of refugees. In the first year or two, there were a lot of open arms and sympathy,” says Bessma Momani, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. “There’s a great deal of resentment now, a feeling of: ‘How many more people can we take before this ship breaks?'” (Petrou 30). Though the Syrian’s hosts have not yet taken up arms or employed underhanded tactics to remove their guests, as the Californians did, the same hostility that Steinbeck depicts in his novel exists in the world today.
A critic might argue that these two refugee crises differ in that the “Okies” remained in their own country, with their own people, whereas the Syrians flood into other countries. Therefore it makes sense that the people of the surrounding Middle Eastern countries are irritated with the invasion of people not of their country or culture. Although this may appear to be a valid point, looking at these two situations from a larger perspective shows that this is not very important when determining if they are similar. Steinbeck’s theme of a people searching for refuge despite the hostility presented against them remains consistent throughout both cases. These reluctant migrants face resentment from the people they seek help from. Ultimately, it is not the state or country boundaries that matter, but the humanity that is pushed aside in the face of this hostility that remains the same in both cases.
This theme that Steinbeck incorporates into his novel still holds importance today. How does one react in the face of invaders who may steal jobs? How is one supposed to survive in the face of such hostility? Steinbeck writes of these issues just as they appear today. The story of the Joads and the view of humanity that it presents are no less relevant today than they were seventy years ago. Ultimately, a search for home is a struggle that everyone must face someday, though perhaps in a more figurative sense than the Joads or the Syrian’s case. Therefore this motif of “searching for refuge” that resounded so honestly through the readers during the Dust Bowl provokes the same understanding amongst readers today, and provides a lens through which a reader can view their world.