‘Two dimensions of otherness’ – the Syrian refugee crisis migrates to America


“Each new American citizen brings a unique set of skills and experiences which they can use to improve our communities and our nation. And each of them can help renew our shared hope that unlimited possibilities are available to everyone who embraces the opportunities that this country offers under its Constitution.”
– León Rodríguez, Director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, column on U.S. Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, 2015

“We have a problem in this country, it’s called Muslims… when can we get rid of them?”
– Question posed to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, in New Hampshire, September 17, 2015

It should come as no surprise that President Obama’s promise to welcome 10,000 refugees fleeing the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, is causing some in our nation to flex their nationalist, racist muscle. Never mind that many are only a couple of generations removed from their refugee ancestors. Never mind that this latest batch of refugees can be linked directly to the mistakes we made invading Iraq, part of the Bush Doctrine’s sad, flawed legacy, and because of that we bear some responsibility.

“When we talk about Iraq and Afghanistan refugees,” says Ted Terry, the mayor of “the most ethnically diverse square mile in America,” Clarkston, Georgia, “we’re talking mainly about people who helped out American and coalition forces during the war, people who risked their lives to help our soldiers in those wars, and who, if they stayed there, would be killed.”

“These resettlement programs,” Terry added, “are making up for the turmoil and the war and the strife that, quite frankly, America caused by inserting ourselves into those parts of the world.”

But humanity and empathy are set aside as too complex for simple minds that react more easily to hatred and fear.The immigrant is hated because he is different, and feared because of her olive skin and stigmatized culture. Take a look what is happening in Europe, right now, as hundreds of thousands of displaced people flee war to seek a better life in the West.

“Certainly the fact that the majority of the refugees are Muslims is a problem,” Dr. Luca Mavelli, a professor of Politics and International Relations at he University of Kent, in England, told National Public Radio, Monday. “There is an issue in Europe, which is a longstanding conflation between migrants and Muslims, so two dimensions of otherness that, somehow, are now coming together, and are well represented by Eastern European countries, like Hungary or The Czech Republic who have been very clearly stating that they would only take Christian refugees.”

And despite the fact that these brave souls are undertaking dangerous and harrowing journeys to reach Germany, France and England, their tiny children washed up on the beach like driftwood, the entire throng is demonized because most of them are Muslim. The hand wringing over solutions to the crisis has brought out some of the worst on our shores, as well.

“The rhetoric has been really awful,” James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, told Newsweek, recently. “The difficulty of doing it is met by this Islamophobia and conflation of Syrians and Iraqis with terrorists.”

“Every person has their own story. They are human beings, here,” explained Ted Terry. “The term refugee is not a monolith. When we say refugee, we are talking about people from Eritrea who are Coptic Christians. When we’re talking about Syrians, we’re talking about people who are both Muslims and Christians.”

Back in January, when it was apparent there would be new migrants from the war weary Near East coming to America, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) sent a letter to the White House warning that inviting thousands of Syrian refugees to our country would be offering “a backdoor for jihadists” who would take advantage of the melee to blend in with other immigrants.

“We… know that ISIS wants to use refugee routes as cover to sneak operatives into the West,” he wrote in a statement, after the White House announcement, last week.

But State Department officials insist there is already a rigorous and deliberate screening protocol for refugees. “We have a very slow process of moving refugees through our pipeline, and part of it is because of the security vetting component,” Larry Bartlett, the Director of Refugee Admission for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, told ABC in February.

Scenes from Clarkston, Georgia, "the most ethnically diverse square mile in America.". (Click to enlarge.)
Scenes from Clarkston, Georgia, “the most ethnically diverse square mile in America.” (Click to enlarge.)

That one to two year vetting process, combined with “good community policing, good community relations with the Muslim leaders in these communities,” said Mayor Terry, make him feel his town is as safe as any in America.

“For Clarkston,” he added, “we’ve had 35 years of refugee resettlement. We’ve had them from many different Muslim countries. We’ve had them from Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq, certainly, and we haven’t had a terrorist come over in those 35 years. I don’t expect that to change.”

That’s important to Terry because even Georgia Governor Nathan Deal (R) acknowledges that most of the new refugees are likely to end up there. Like other Republican run states, Georgia’s leaders have asked Washington not to increase their share of refugees. Deal explained his state’s position to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week:

“Deal’s administration confirmed Tuesday it has asked the State Department to keep the number of refugees resettling in the Peach State ‘static’ going into the next fiscal year.

“‘We will be welcoming,’ Deal told the AJC. ‘But we want to make sure we’re not taking a disproportionately large share of them compared to other parts of the country.'”

Deal is supported by some of his party’s hardliners, like pundit and political consultant Phil Kent, who recently published a piece titled, “Gov. Deal Seeks to Limit Muslim Refugee Influx.” Like its headline, the post unsparingly criticizes Obama’s decision based on the faith of the migrants and reiterates the aforementioned “conflation” that equates them with terrorism.

“I don’t recall ever voting in the United States for bringing in masses of Muslims,” Kent said, this week, on a local news and current events television panel where he appears as a regular guest.

Terry finds that attitude counterproductive, and insists that the promise of America demands we take in the refugees:

“We can invite them to come to America as a gesture of good will and compassion, lead by example in that regard, and when they get here, they find out, ‘Oh, my goodness! Americans aren’t the evil Satan. Maybe they’re not as bad as people in my country said they were. I’ve been welcomed with open arms. They helped save me from this terrible position I was in, helped me to save my children, and here I am in a place that’s not only free, but also safer and has a lot more opportunity than I ever could have dreamed of.’

“That’s the only way we’re ever going to win this war of ideas between radical Islam and what is not a religious argument, but more of an argument over liberty and freedom. That’s what we say in the pledge of allegiance every single school day and every City Council meeting in Clarkston. We talk about ‘…with liberty and justice for all.’ That’s exactly what we’re doing for these refugees. We’re providing liberty and justice for all of them.”

-PBG

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