Embracing Refugees and Our Common Humanity

In the summer, I saw a link to a news article about the civil war happening right now in Yemen. I had known for a few months about the fighting there; the BBC World Service covered it on Newshour when it really kicked into gear in February. I was aware of it, I could tell you a few things about it, but I didn’t -know- what it was like.

This article — about how the United States was selling cluster bombs to the Saudis, who are engaged in a bombing campaign against Yemeni civilian targets (such as bombing weddings) — forced me to confront what was happening there.

I saw picture after picture of children. Some were in refugee camps. Some stood in rubble strewn streets. One was a little girl, not more than five or six, who sat on the stairs to the basement where her house had been. I stress the “had”; the house had been destroyed by one of the cluster bombs. The one that haunts me the most was of a little girl who looks like my niece when she was about three; this little girl has tears welling in her eyes, there are crumbs on her face, and there is a look of sadness, fear, and confusion in her eyes. She was an “internally displaced person” — a polite euphemism for a refugee.

And I realized that maybe there’s no hope for us.

Children want to feel loved. They want to feel protected. They want to feel warm. They want to feel secure. They have dreams. They love to play and imagine. They want to feel happiness and joy. And their parents want to protect them and keep them warm and keep them safe. They want their children to have those dreams, to be happy.

And I realized that they — the Yemenis, the Syrians — have none of that. The children aren’t protected. They have no security in their lives. They don’t know where their next meal is coming from. They don’t know where they can sleep. They have no possessions. And their parents can’t provide them any of those things, which I am undoubtedly sure is psychologically devastating for them.

All they have is fear. And suffering. And pain. And death. Children are growing up knowing only war and senseless hate.

I don’t understand it. Why do we have to hate and kill each other? The same blood flows through our veins. We breath the same air. We have the same wants, we share the same dreams. We’re the same.

These pictures of Syrian refugee children break me. They’re strangers, and I love them. And I weep for them because I don’t know what else to do and I don’t know that I’ll ever stop.

What they and their families need is compassion. They need a place to live, a roof over their heads, a place without bombs and rubble and hate. The Obama administration had, in the summer, announced plans to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees.

Yesterday, in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris on Friday, a dozen Republican governors fell all over themselves to tell the Obama administration that they don’t want Syrian refugees resettled in their states. One of those governors, by the way, was John Kasich, who two months ago said he welcomed them; he’s a profile in pandering, not courage.

I’m disappointed, but not surprised, by this turn of events. The animating principle of the GOP seems to be fear, and when that fear trumps American values, fear wins. I keep thinking of history and how people came to these shores, how many immigrants were refugees themselves from the very sort of religious conflict that is happening in Syria today. I think of the Statue of Liberty and the poem, “The New Colussus”; its line, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” says who we are as a nation and who we dream of being. Only now, some are pandering to fear and xenophobia. They’re forgetting their own history.

Deep in this Slate article, there’s this thoughtful passage. By giving into their fear, people like Kasich and Greg Abbott of Texas and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana are handing Daesh a moral and propaganda victory:

“While [Alabama Governor Robert] Bentley and other governors simplistically contend to be acting in the best interests of their citizens, they have done nothing of the kind. Instead, they have handed ISIS an unexpected victory. ISIS wants Muslims to feel scorned, scared, and stigmatized. ISIS understands that alienated and aggrieved populations are the easiest to further radicalize. Bentley hasn’t only failed to make his citizens safer; he has given ISIS recruiters their newest talking point.”

There’s no reason to turn away these children. We shouldn’t fear them. Why can’t we help them grow up secure and happy, with a roof over their heads, without having to worry where their next meal is coming from? Why can’t we embrace them? Why can’t we make them friends?

What are we so afraid of?

Embracing the refugees from Syria and showing them compassion, showing them kindness isn’t just the humane thing to do. It’s the act that, just maybe, means that there’s something about humanity worth saving.

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