How might Unitarians respond to the Syrian refugee crisis?

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By Viv Allen

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Viv Allen © 18 October 2015

Lately I’ve been watching the world news about the Syrian refugee crisis with a mix of emotions including surprise, pity, empathy, horror and fear ……..

It has got me thinking about how we Auckland Unitarians might respond. We will have time after my talk for a short discussion.

Consider the comments of Australian Senator Cory Bernardi, who claims the drowned Syrian toddler Aylan was travelling to Greece because his father wanted better teeth. Bernardi could be right about the toddler but his comments are not only totally inappropriate but also not very helpful because this humanitarian crisis existed long before images of poor young Aylan flashed across our screens.

Consider also recent comments by our own Winston Peters, who suggests that some of the refugee men should go back home to fight for their freedom. This is not only inappropriate but deeply misguided. There are hundreds of rebel groups operating in Syria – which one should we expect them to join? And also do we expect all the men to just leave their wives and children to fend for themselves?

It’s time for a mature discussion about the refugee crisis and I hope some of our politicians will provide better comments that those of Senator Bernadi and Winston Peters.

Obviously we’re not the only ones grappling with this issue but we are in the relatively lucky position of not being one of the countries inundated with thousands of refugees. We’ve got time to think about what we want to do and how we will respond.

How are other countries responding?

Depending on which surveys you read some countries support taking in more Syrian refugees, including Germany and Canada, and many against including the US, Switzerland and Britain. However, the results of these polls are changing weekly because the situation is so volatile. And the results of these surveys seem to depend on the subtle differences in the wording of the questions asked.

At present I understand NZ has agreed to take 750 Syrian refugees over 3 years. Amnesty International NZ is asking NZers to ask the government for a permanent doubling of the refugee quota. Australia takes three times more refugees a year than NZ per capita, and is home to five times more former refugees per capita than NZ. Additionally it has announced an emergency intake of 12,000 Syrian refugees. Norway which is also similar in population to NZ, takes over 2000 refugees every year.

What are other Unitarian Universalists doing?

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) is a human rights organization and is in more than a dozen countries throughout the world. The UUSC has partnered with the Unitarian Church in Hungary to support volunteer relief efforts. They are giving money directly toward meeting the emergency humanitarian needs of the several thousands of vulnerable Syrian refugees arriving daily by bus, train, and foot.

The Unitarians in Toronto have decided to sponsor a Syrian refugee family which seems to be quite an arduous task in Canada where you have to agree to cover all bills for a year ie; rent, income, medical etc.

Is this something we could consider as I don’t think it would be so difficult as in Canada?

Are there risks in taking in Syrian refugees? Over 90% of Syrians are Muslim so for the point of this talk I am making the assumption that these refugees would be Muslim.

What are the risks? I see three main risks; Economic, security, and cultural risks.

  1. The economic risk; Will large numbers adversely impact the local economy as we would have to provide them with food, accommodation and clothing?
  2. The security risk; will militant groups such as ISIS use this crisis to send their agents here? Alternatively, will refugees bring with them the same problems they have left behind?
  3. The social and cultural risk; the concern is that refugees will not fit in with our values or, even worse, they may overwhelm us to the point where the values of our culture are lost.

These risks are very real, and we should not downplay them, but the crisis is just as real. Some European countries have said that Muslim refugees threaten Europe’s Christian identity and roots. Australia has said they only want Syrians who belong to a religious minority. It will be interesting to see how a secular nation will go about testing and evaluating their refugees’ religious beliefs.

Some say that if the goal is to combat extremism, taking in refugees is a better tactic than letting them languish in bleak camps abroad.

Who are these Syrians and what are they like and does this matter? OK most of them are Muslim but I say they’re also mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, and daughters. They’re farmers, teachers, doctors, and merchants.

Some of you will know that around 20 years ago while I was a single mother with 2 of my children still at home my older daughter Heidi started going out with a Syrian refugee called Franco. Franco and his brother Tony came to NZ as refugees and settled here. Heidi would have been 19 and Franco around 25. He would appear at my door very well-dressed and politely ask to take Heidi out. I’ve always thought of myself of being very liberal and prided myself that I treated everyone equally. After a few weeks of Heidi and Franco going out one day Franco knocked on the door, I answered and he just stood there and looked at me. Next he asked me, ‘Do you think we Muslims beat up our women?” I was struck dumb, went bright red with embarrassment because that is exactly what I’d been thinking and he’d seen right through me. I think I mumbled a no but then we both started laughing. From then on Franco and I were great friends and after a while he moved in with us as Heidi was pregnant. I had to completely reset my prejudices. Franco was not at all what I had expected him to be. True he’d never pick up a towel off the floor or put a coffee cup away in the dishwasher but often he’d push us all out of the kitchen and cook everyone in the house a beautiful Syrian meal. He was a nice guy, and the main difference from kiwi men that I noticed was that he was quite excitable, would get quite loud and use his hands a lot when talking – a bit like we would expect from say an Italian.

A few months after moving in to my house the brothers’ older sister Hanan came to NZ for a 3 month visit. I was very keen to meet her so a visit was arranged for me to go to where she was staying. Again my preconceptions were totally wrong. I was expecting a veiled subdued woman but I was introduced to a very strong, educated woman who made it quite clear that she was in NZ to take control of her brothers. Hanan had brought along her 3year old son Humum but soon had to apply for refugee status as well because, back in Syria, her husband had been arrested and thrown into jail on trumped up political charges. To finish up the story, about 2 years later the family in Syria managed to pay a bribe to get Hanan’s husband released and on to a plane to NZ. They actually settled in a house next to mine so I saw quite a lot of them at that time. Hanan’s husband Akmed, as soon as he arrived used to come and spend hours talking to me to improve his English. He told me how he was held in a prison for two years without ever being formally charged. At night he was in a tiny cell with 20 other men and to sleep they all had to lie like sardines on the concrete floor. Both Hanan and her husband were engineers and very keen to improve their English so that they could attend university to gain some NZ qualifications which I believe they did after I lost contact with them. Franco and Heidi broke up and Franco now lives in Australia.

So my experience with a Syrian family was a relatively positive one – I say relatively because Franco did end up on a NZ jail on charges of credit-card fraud but that is another story.

My conclusions are; Let’s see refugees as who they really are: fellow human beings who feel pain, suffering and humiliation just like we do. They are in urgent need of assistance and we should do all we can to help them.

BUT let’s not be too naïve about the potential problems of bringing in large numbers of Muslims. They won’t all be educated middle-class people like my ex son-in-law and his family who I call cultural Muslims. They called themselves Muslim, occasionally went to the mosque and followed their religious traditions but were definitely not fundamentalist believers.

If we all go about our lives with our head in the sands, it could provide an environment for radical right-wing political parties to evolve which has happened in Holland with the rise of the anti-Muslim racist Freedom Party.

Dutch Muslim, Ahmed Marcouch, son of an illiterate Moroccan immigrant and now a Labor member of Parliament. Says; If part of the Dutch anxiety is about identity, there are similar concerns among Muslims here. There are two parallel sets of identity crises; Most Muslims came from poor, less educated parts of Morocco and eastern Turkey, and clung to traditional values and the mosque as bulwarks against a secular society that promoted individualism, gender equality and gay rights.

They didn’t speak Dutch, they didn’t know Holland, and they saw the sexual revolution, feminism and youth anarchism as a provocation, as part of a decadent society,” Mr. Marcouch said. He remembers his father saying with contempt, “Women are the bosses here.”

At the same time, Mr. Marcouch said, Dutch politicians were promoting economic integration — language training, job training. “They didn’t understand the importance of religious identity among the immigrants,” he said. They dismissed it as backward even as they failed to understand the anger a growing immigrant population was creating. “The fear,” he said, “is on both sides.”

Maybe this will be a good opportunity for we kiwis to identify what are our values, what is our culture, what direction we want for our future. Tolerance is a two-way street: Just as the majority accept the minority, the minority should also tolerate the majority.