I can’t help but notice how hard it is for us to connect with news stories when we don’t have a personal face — someone we know, or a memory, or some simple way of helping us feel personally impacted by stories we read about.
My closest friend from college, about whom I care more than almost anyone except my family (and who has been like family to me for the past 20+ years), is an American (born in Cleveland) who also happens to be a Syrian-American and a Muslim. I got to catch up with him tonight, hear all about his new baby, and what he’s been doing with his life.
I asked about his family abroad, knowing that most of his parents’ (and his wife’s parents’) families had still been in Syria. His elderly grandma is still in Damascus, not wanting to leave her home. Some of his uncles, aunts, and cousins were able to go to stay with family in other parts of the Middle East. One cousin left after learning he was about to be drafted into the Syrian army. One cousin took his chances, and is now in Europe – one of the everyday people in the Europe’s “Syrian Refugee Crisis.” His wife’s mother and sisters stayed in their home in a suburb of Damascus – partly because they didn’t want to leave the home they’ve known, but they also weren’t sure that life as a refugee would be an improvement, given what they’ve seen of how the refugees have been received so far. Thinking on that hurts my heart. I cannot imagine making these decisions.
This same friend lives in one of the areas of the south that was devastated by storm damage and flooding that followed Hurricane Joaquin. He and his wife took their newborn to stay with their parents a half-hour away, but since he lives in a neighborhood with lots of retirees and elderly people, he drove up periodically to check in on his neighbors and see if they needed anything. You know, because that’s what good Muslims do. The neighbors would tell him how they’d been without clean water and had to boil water before drinking, or how the power had been out most of the past week, or how they couldn’t leave the house to go anywhere. This is what life is like in parts of Syria every day. Imagine if that were your everyday life, and you didn’t know that things would get better over the coming weeks, as utilities were restored and your life got back to normal. Imagine if this was life every day, with no hope on your horizon of it ever changing, at all. No normal. What if this were your only normal?
I’m reminded that people don’t flee their homelands for an unknown life as a refugee unless home is untenable. I’m reminded that these people fleeing their countries — these people in refugee camps or trying to find a new country that might welcome them with compassionate kindness and offer safe haven – these are real people, with families, many of whom had regular, everyday, normal, middle and upper-middle class lives back home. These are people who don’t love the Syrian government any more than we do, and who despise Daesh/ISIL in ways us non-Muslim Westerners can barely comprehend, because they aren’t claiming to represent us. They aren’t parading our religion in front of the world as their reason for murder, kidnapping, rape, and destruction. They aren’t going after our cousins, sisters, and extended family. They aren’t turning countries we’ve visited and loved – countries our grandmothers still love too much to leave – into rubble. If you think you hate what is happening in Syria, you should ask a Syrian how they feel about it. Believe me when I say that your grief, your rage, and your heartbreak, however huge they are – they’re pebbles beside the boulders of crushing grief and fear these refugees and the people who love them are carrying on their backs.
I have no answers. I know that these issues are complicated, and that they are made more so by the ridiculous level of misinformation and fear that spreads unchecked through biased news and social media frenzies. I share this with you not to preach, but only because it touched my heart and gave this crisis a personal face in a much more concrete way for me, and I think that’s what it’s going to take for us to act with integrity in the face of xenophobic calls to fear and intolerance. So, if you’re one of my FB pals who doesn’t know a Muslim in real life, or a Syrian, or an Arab, feel free to let my friend be your friend. He’s a stand-up guy – the best of the best. I can vouch for him. Let his family touch your heart like they’ve touched mine. And then let that be the lens through which you evaluate what you’re reading, saying, and sharing.