Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Vitally Important Lessons that Syrian Refugees Have to Teach America

by Nomad

A recent article from Detroit reminds us that Syrian refugees have something important to teach all of us about where we came from, who we now are and what we will become.

The arrests of two Iraqi refugees on charges of providing material support to ISIS this week has provided new impetus for governors to attempt to block Syrian refugee efforts. Their crusade, which runs counter to their actual authority, has naturally met with some serious stumbling-blocks.
Those obstacles are unlikely to force them to stop. For  some time now we have all watched as Republicans seized upon the Syrian refugees as a political issue, stoking as much as possible public fears. 

One state, Michigan, has taken in about 200 Syrian refugees, one of the highest of all states in the U.S. In November, after the Paris attacks, Governor Snyder -like many governors- demanded a halt to accepting any further Syrian refugees

Snyder cited security concerns and the possibility of terrorist infiltration. Never mind that there were already rigorous checks and screenings. Never mind that in the Paris attacks, only one of the 13 terrorists was born outside of France and Abdelhamid Abaaoud was born in Belgium, not in the Middle East, and definitely not in Syria.
Facts, facts, facts, what untidy things they are.

Meanwhile we have armed militias dressed up as soldiers seizing federal property in Oregon and advocating rising up" against the tyranny of the federal government. Nobody on the Right, as far as I know, has suggested deportation for these louts.

To Be Treated Like a Human Being
On this subject, the Detroit Free Press has a story worthy of your time.  
Before arriving in the US four months ago, 55-year-old Syrian refugee Samir Al-Rachdan spent four years in a refugee camp in Jordon. Compared to that experience, America, he finds, has been welcoming.
He told a Free Press interviewer:
"Over here, I feel my humanity has been given back to me. People are treating me as a human. They recognize that I am a person. They will smile at me when I’m here. They’ve given me a welcome. They’ve given me freedom. They’re treating me as a human being with rights. I am so grateful to this great country for welcoming us."
Tasting American freedom can be an intoxicating thing, especially when you have lived, first, under oppression, then as a witness in a horrific civil war, followed by the desperation and uncertainty of a refugee camp.  
The idea of freedom- being treated like a human being and as an equal- was beyond the dreams of most refugees.

Al-Rachdan was so impressed by what he saw in the US that he decided he was obligated to give back.
Through a program with the Syrian American Rescue Network, he and other Syrian refugees in metro Detroit are volunteering at local churches to help the poor and local congregations.
They have helped serve brunch to the needy, cooking and cleaning and arranging temporary homeless shelter in church basements. They also plan to visit area senior citizens on Valentine's Day, with roses and chocolates for the residents.

Al-Rachdan's wife, Entesar Al-Rachdan, told the Free Press reporter:
"It’s very important for us to stand side-by-side, work hand-in-hand as Syrian refugees with the American people, to be able to do something positive for this great country. Unfortunately, we are not able to contribute with money, but we are able to contribute with our time. Anything that we can do to give back, that’s where we’re going to find ourselves doing in the future."
Are all refugees as angelic as this pair? Probably not. It's foolish to think they are perfect specimens of humanity. Who is? On the other hand, it's equally foolish (and cowardly) to classify every refugee as a terrorist threat too.
One pastor who arranged the volunteer effort at his own church said:
"We want to show how love can be greater than fear."
The question facing Americans is whether that is actually true: Is love stronger than fear? Do we really in our hearts believe this?

These churches are a perhaps perfect venue to test this theory. If you are Christian, you are supposed to believe in the power of love. Loving your neighbor, not fearing, or judging or hating, is, after all, the highest of all of the commandments in the Christian faith.  

The New Testament is filled with quotes about the power of unconditional love to overcome all obstacles.
For instance, in the Book of John we see this passage:
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
Of course it is hard to love some people, especially when they seem so different than you. It can be easy to allow doubts and suspicions to creep in.
What about some even more basic principle? The Book of Luke we see the very clear quote:
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
How many of us would (could) endure the same things these Syrians families have gone through? Months, perhaps years, in poorly staffed refugee camps, a dangerous sea crossing, a walk across Southern Europe and finally ending up in a foreign land with the locals condemning you as a terror threat.
Who among us wouldn't ask for some compassion or at the very least, a rejection of blind hate? 
*   *   *
Of course, one doesn't necessarily have to be devout to understand the problem. America was based on a system based on the idea that humans were "endowed by their creator with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." 

The City on the Hill
These revolutionary ideas actually didn't begin with America's founding fathers.  They originated well before the creation of the United States. 

Puritan John Winthrop's 1630 sermon "A Model of Christian Charity" gave us the oft-quoted vision for new world as a refuge, a "city upon a hill." (So ingrained is this ideology in the American psyche, the phrase was suitable for both Kennedy and Reagan.)

Winthrop declared that people within the community should live peacefully with one another. It was a duty to their faith. He noted too how physical wealth can hinder serving God, and if one does not look out for others, God will not help the person later when he needs help. 
There exists, Winthrop explained, a "bond of love" for one another 
and we all must "live in the exercise of it." This bond unites a group of people who, in turn, would be blessed by God. That blessing would allow a positive impact on the rest of the world. As one source explains:
Despite the diversity of people, having this love could unite people of completely different socioeconomic backgrounds to work together and better the world. He moves on to emphasize the importance of the community’s needs over the individual’s needs, in order for the community to grow and ensure a better future for the individuals.
That bond of love could not restrictive. limited to our class, our nationality, our own religion or our own color. It had to include all of humankind, without exception. When the time came to become an independent nation, this ideology- steeped in Christian charity -became, in secular hands, a revolutionary idea of government.

A new power structure had emerged,- slowly at first- based not privilege but on the rights of the individual to live free with equal rights to all under God and not under government. That's true regardless of religion or class and as this enlightenment expanded, those rights included gender, color of their skin and sexual orientation.   
Sure, it's an idealistic notion, the source of many liberal fantasies. But it is  also something that any American- any enlightened person- must respect. 

A few nations in the Middle East (and other parts of the world) half-heartedly give lip-service to the idea. The tide of democracy might have washed the modern age, but some nations remained high and dry.  When these notions finally came to Syria during the Arab Spring, it was equally matched with formidible opposition by the ruler and his supporters to the north and to the East. 
There, the message was clear: it is only control and power- not liberty- that's the name of the game.

The Lost American Pride 
So it is no wonder too that refugees are flocking to the US, France, Germany and the UK and not Iran, China, Russia and North Korea.
It is, in fact, the highest compliment and endorsement to the American way of life.
It's something all Americans ought to take pride in. It's a part of heritage, after all.

Consider too that these refugees have spent decades listening to constant anti-American propaganda and yet all of it can be washed away when we show that the American system actually works. It's simply beyond the imagination for so many immigrants that such a system might exist and function. Even when it functions imperfectly, the fact that many Americans believe in their system is impressive.

It's too bad- but not surprising- that so many Americans are unable to appreciate their culture of freedom. That's something we all tend to take for granted. 

The true problem then, isn't the Syrian refugees or the potential threat of terrorism.
It is much more basic.
These refugees force us to look inward and ask whether we truly believe that love can conquer fear and hate, whether loving your neighbor is a value we share, whether all people deserve the right to pursue happiness and whether all people deserve equal rights. We must then ask: 
Will we actually forfeit our heritage and allow fear and hatred to win? Will we let the lights go out on this defining ideology of America?
What a pity it would be.
Treating people as we would wish to be treated is the essence of neighborliness and something most of us do claim to believe in.

We have all seen examples of this idea in action. We are in this struggle together. We are stronger when we act together. We cannot let our difference blind us to all of the common things we share. Those are rewards of our enlightenment.

Fear, Lies and Complicit Silence
Yet, we remain silent when we hear hate and fear stirred up as a campaign tactic or a party platform. Hating the poor, fearing African Americans and Hispanics, hating and fearing gays and lesbians, hating women and trying to limit them, mothers, sisters and daughters, in every possible way.

Inexplicibly, the majority of Americans remain mute when the corporate-owned news media seeks to divide us and hate our own government, when it encourages to betray our finest principles, we blithely sigh or we bitterly laugh at the sheer idiocy. 

We see so many voters crowd into auditoriums to listen to candidates spreading ignorance and lies and feel no shame when they applaud and cheer him or her on. It is supremely ironic that the people most responsible for the attack on our ideals like to wave the American flag and like to call America a "Christian Nation.
Take this example from the bastion of the conservative movement, the Heritage Foundation. Here's an article discussing "The American Experiment" 
As we look around the world at how difficult it is for democracy and freedom to take hold and flourish, America seems like a political miracle.
That much is true. But the term "miracle" suggests it happened without careful deliberation from the drafters of the constitution. 

Lawrence Hunter, a writer for Forbes in 2012 declared that "the American Experiment in liberty has failed" and Americans really ought to get used to that fact.
The U.S. Constitution has been unable to thwart the corrosive dynamics of majority-rule democracy, which in turn has mangled the Constitution beyond recognition.
It's a dangerously ill-informed idea and it actually describes Russia, not the US. According to our own constitution, a constitutional democracy requires majority rule with minority rights. 
All . . . will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect and to violate would be oppression.
The Constitution is not, therefore, to blame. Until recently, this has been a guiding light- sometime it has flickered, perilously close to going out. However, most of the time this constitutional balancing act has shown us the right path. 

Hunter's inaccurate suppostion leads him to another misplaced conclusion (and it is a shocking one too.) Democracy, he says, is the problem. 
The real conclusion of the American Experiment is that democracy ultimately undermines liberty and leads to tyranny and oppression by elected leaders and judges, their cronies and unelected bureaucrats. All of this is done in the name of “the people” and the “general welfare,” of course.
Say what? According to Hunter, it's democracy that's the villain. Give everybody equality and it all goes to shit. 
it is impossible any longer to labor under the delusion that democracy can be fixed by tinkering with constitutions, appointing the right judges to the bench or electing the right politicians to office.
He wasn't entirely hopeless. His recommendation? Hunter advised that the states must 
"rise up and overthrow the federal tyranny that characterizes the United States in the early days of the 21st century."
Hunter says that his solution "offers the last exit before the cliff that our current system is headed toward." 

Smell the manipulative fear? Call it Fascist peek-a-boo. 
Isn't this the same thinking, the same path that Syria took toward its bloody civil war. No democratic solutions were possible. All other options had been exhausted. Only by "rising up and overthrowing" could this tyranny be abolished. 

The Syrian Lesson on Tyranny
Ask the Syrian refugees where "rising up and using violence to overthrow tyranny leads?

Not to freedom, but to the absolute destruction of a nation, to outside interference on every side, to mass slaughter and horrors we cannot being to imagine. Syria will never be a power in the region. It is probably a lost cause for the next 50 years. 
Of the 100,000 dead Syrians, perhaps the majority had no strong political affiliation one way of the other. They were witnesses to the events as much as anybody else. They simply happened to be closer than the rest of us.

All of this could have been avoided if either side had been willing to compromise. If either side had not thought that might equalled right. If both sides had not thought that the political question could be settled by either "crushing dissent" or "rising up against oppression."

And yet, Hunter's quote didn't come from some radical website or some hysterical self-published diatribe. It was printed in Forbes, an American business magazine and the daily reader of the 1%. Its motto is, tellingly, I think, "The Capitalist Tool."

Read the quoted passage again. Isn't this exactly the same thinking that leads men to take over government property in Oregon. In fact, if anything, states have shown themselves to be even more corrupted than the federal government. 
The oversized fears about possible terrorists among Syrian refugees is ironic when the real threat comes from internal elements, promoted by the same people who stoke fears of external threats.

Undermining Our Faith
That such ideas are allowed to be actively promoted unchallenged is the most depressing aspect of it all. It shows us how easily Americans are willing to surrender to those would would dare to undermine our belief in both our God and our country. 

This now brings us back to the refugees.
Certainly Syrian refugees have their own opinions about the wisdom of rising up against tyranny, rather than searching for positive compromising and cooperation. They are not in any position to warn us against rebellion.

They do, in their gentle way, have something equally important to teach us. Making generalizations about who is an who is not a terrorist is always going to self-defeating. We must judge each person as an individual, just the Puritan Winthrop implied.

Syrian refugees- so willing to contribute and to share in the American ideals- also force us to reflect on some difficult questions about what we have become as a nation, what we truly believe and who is responsible for the shift away from our best traits.  
No wonder so many on the Far Right seem these strangers as a threat.