A few weeks ago, my friend Colleen Friesen wrote a blog post about the Syrian refugee crises and her experiences travelling to Syria in 1998. In her article she asks the question: “What do you think we’d do if a truck load of Syrians showed up on our street?”
I’ve been asking myself something similar for many months. As Hungary completed construction of a four metre-high, 175 km steel barrier that runs along its entire border with Serbia, forcing coiled razor-wire into the faces of those fleeing danger, I kept asking myself: “What are we doing?”
On a recent trip to Jordan, I spent some time with a Bedouin family (the Bedouin, or “Bedu” in Arabic, are the nomadic peoples that inhabit the desert regions of the Middle East). The encounter took place in the Dana Biosphere Reserve, near the border with Israel. Myself and a handful of writers were welcomed into a home, which was comprised of a large square tent. One glaring lightbulb was hoisted on a pole to light the room and carpets were scattered over the sand to create a seating area.
Seven male family members gathered to greet us with broad smiles and words of welcome in Arabic. We were guided to sit on the ground in a circle. My body settled into the firm carpet and I looked around at the smiling faces of the men. A teenager to my right was pouring coffee into two small silver cups. The cups were refilled after a few sips if the guest didn’t shake the cup to indicate “no more.” A round of tea followed the coffee.
While being served, our translator encouraged us to ask the older men questions about their culture. We learned that their most important values are honour, family and generosity; that their children now learn English in co-ed schools; and that the women of the family were currently concealed in a private room behind a flap in the tent. Women visitors could go in and spend time with them, but the Bedouin women could not come out and sit with us. I was wishing I could speak Arabic.
We then asked the men if they had any questions for us. After finding out about marriage and dating customs in North America, the young man who had served us tea and coffee stepped forward. He spoke shyly but looked at us directly:
“I hear that people in your country don’t help their neighbours, that they will close their door when someone needs help. Is this true?”
One woman from New York City told the boy, ironically, that cities are dangerous in the West. A man in our group mirrored that sentiment. Then another journalist finally admitted: Yes, we close our doors.
In the Bedouin culture, when someone needs help, people open their homes for as long as is needed without expectation of anything in return. We asked them: If a stranger entered their community, coming from anywhere, would they still open their doors?
“Of course,” one of the older men said, looking perplexed at the obviousness of the answer.
There we sat, a handful of journalists from North America, the place where people live “the good life,” and yet by contrast to the Bedu, we avert our eyes when someone asks for spare change; we shrug our shoulders when we think there is nothing we can do as individuals. I guess it’s only “the good life” for some.
The fact that in the Middle East, a place that makes the news almost daily because of its poverty and danger, people would take care of us if we needed help, while we would look the other way if the situation was reversed – was a deeply uncomfortable thought. Even shameful.
This is what is happening to the hundreds of thousands of refugees who are fleeing violence, only to be blocked and turned away from the safety of more stable countries.
What can we do for the Syrian refugees?
When the photo of a Syrian boy who washed up drowned on a Turkish beach went viral, people all over the world were forced by emotional shock to finally stop and consider the plight of refugees as they risk their lives to escape conflicts in their countries. This is only one of the many heartbreaking stories.
Living in Canada, the refugee crisies feels far away. But Syrian Canadians and groups trying to sponsor refugees have spoken out in the media about their stalled or failed attempts to bring the rest of their families here. Meanwhile, one can find comments all over the Internet that espouse the idea that Canadians should take care of Canadians first. To which I can only respond: Is it not possible to do more than one thing at a time? Helping refugees does not preclude also helping Canadians in need.
What can we do to let governments know that closing our doors, or opening them slowly and partially, is unacceptable? Or do you believe it is acceptable to turn refugees away?
The thing is, this crisies is not just their problem. It is our problem, too. Let’s come up with solutions to help those whose lives are in peril.