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The International Writers Magazine: Refugees

Defacing the Syrian Stigma
•John Lambert


In May, WSPA-TV, a local television news station, posted to Facebook asking for viewer’s opinions regarding plans by World Relief, a non-profit humanitarian organization, to establish a Syrian refugee resettlement office in my hometown of Spartanburg, SC. The overwhelming amount of negative feedback was appalling; the vast majority of commenters expressly condemned the idea of offering refugees a haven in Spartanburg. Some commenters gave reasons for their opposition, claiming that the presence of refugees would cost them more tax money and that the refugees could potentially be terrorist-affiliated. Others offered no explanation for their disapproval: “Hell no keep them out,” one commenter wrote.

While speaking to a panel during talks about the refugee resettlement plans in Spartanburg, Jim McMillan, an Upstate politician, claimed that the Syrian refugees “don’t plan to assimilate, they don’t plan to take on our culture. They plan to change the way of American life.” Sadly, these comments made by Mr. McMillan actually reflect the views held by many in Spartanburg and throughout South Carolina. Even sadder is that these contemptuous feelings towards refugees have been exacerbated, not only among South Carolinians, but among people worldwide as a result of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, in which one of the assailants is believed to have crossed several borders by posing as a refugee.

One might question where Mr. McMillan developed his shrewd understanding of the refugee psyche. Has he worked with refugees in the past? Has he spoken to any of them individually about their intentions or feelings or goals? Of course he hasn’t. But he doesn’t have to. It is easy for Mr. McMillan and others who share his lack of compassion to cling to the bogus assumption that Syrian refugees are dangerous, especially now that one person (out of well over four million) among them has been linked to a major terrorist act. However, if Mr. McMillan simply took the time to look up and contemplate the definition of the word “refugee” instead of engaging in senseless fear mongering, he might recognize the absurdity of his sweeping claims about Syrian migrants.

A “refugee,” according the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is one who is seeking refuge, or, more specifically, “a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger.” These refugees have not set out to change American culture or the American way of life. They have not set out to hurt Americans or to indoctrinate them or to steal from them. They are normal human beings with normal thoughts, interests, and emotions who, unlike us, had the misfortune of being born into one of the world’s most dangerous lands. They have been forced to uproot themselves from their homeland, which day and night, is inundated with bombs, threatened by the possibility of sudden violence, and disconcerted by a civil war, in hopes that they can relocate to a new place that allows them security and solace.

Although there are countries throughout the world that have the means to offer the refugees the security and solace they are seeking, very few do. Those that do, make the process of immigrating into their countries almost forbiddingly difficult, a phenomena that will undoubtedly worsen in light of the Paris attacks. In the United States, it already has. Since the attacks, twenty-four, almost half, of US Governors have declared that they will not allow Syrian immigrants into their states, and Republicans in Congress have proposed legislation that, if passed, would deny all Syrian refugees entry into the United States nationwide-- a proposition that is as unconstitutional as it is shameful.

The massive outflow of Syrian refugees fleeing the ongoing desecration of their homeland is not a mere immigration policy problem; it is a humanitarian crisis that is putting our morality to the test—a test that many of the world’s strong and capable nations are collectively failing. Our politicians, and those who hold office elsewhere in the world, should take note of the people of France who, even after having 129 of their citizens slaughtered in such unconscionable cruelty, are still upholding a strong commitment to humanity’s welfare by welcoming refugees into their country. Perhaps, for the French, the terrorist attacks did more than just terrorize: for them, the attacks seem to have served as a reminder of the value of human life—a value that, as we apparently need to remind our leaders, cannot be lessened by the country one was born in.

© John Lambert November 15th 2015

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