On the Paris Attacks: How Flowers Really Do Protect Us

flowerDrawing

I don’t need to tell you what happened in Paris on Friday, November 13, 2015. The merciless and coordinated terrorist attack that left 129 people dead and 368 wounded already has its own Wikipedia entry. Though this attack follows on the heels of a deadly suicide bomb attack in Beirut, and even though Boko Haram killed more people last year than ISIS (earning itself the horrible distinction of being the world’s deadliest terrorist organization), Paris’ popularity as a tourist destination, and its importance in western culture, brought the threat of terror and the reality of the long reach ISIS’ ideological hatred very close to home. Although it is not right of us, we are used to bad things happening, “over there”, and it is simply not very present in many of our minds. But Paris is another story–to many of us, Paris (among other famous European cities like London or Rome) is an icon of cultural achievement and western civilization. It is the City of Light, of art, of romance–it’s a place we go.

So we felt the deaths of those killed in Paris more keenly than we feel the deaths of people in Beirut. Like I said, this is not right–but it is an emotional fact that I am experiencing myself. We know things are bad in Syria and Iraq (obviously, or there wouldn’t be so many refugees risking life and limb to leave), we know other countries around the world are facing instability and threats, and many of us feel sorrow or worry or a need to help, but Paris shook us to our cores.

I’m sure many of us have responded with fear. Many have responded with hatred, and have expressed a desire for revenge, either through violence (“Let’s bomb the shit out of them!”) or through a refusal to offer aid to refugees fleeing civil war and ISIS (“We don’t want them here–they’re going to murder us!”). Hearts have hardened and reason has taken a back seat–many Canadians (including Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall) either don’t know or don’t care that none of the attackers have been identified as Syrian refugees, or that the refugees who will be re-settled in Canada have gone through, and will go through, many high-level security screenings. Some people barely gave a moment of thought to the actual victims in Paris before they started in on the Islamophobic vitriol, so eager were they to express their hatred and fear (almost gleeful, it seems, to have an excuse).

But many have responded with compassion instead–recognizing that refugees from Syria are running from exactly the same people who threaten us. My own resolve remains firm–it was simply luck that I was born in Canada; that doesn’t make me better than anyone born somewhere else, and that doesn’t give me the right to deny them what my grandparents and great-grandparents were given–a safe home that still has so much room for more. Many groups and individuals across Canada are extending their hand and sponsoring refugees, and this is a wonderful thing.

But I am also sad, and scared, and what I want to feel more than anything right now is hope. Which is why this little video clip, of a Parisian father talking to his son, is such a comfort to me:

[Some very silly folks, after watching this video, felt the need to comment that flowers can’t physically protect people from guns–as if we didn’t know! But I don’t feel that the boy’s father was lying. If we honour the dignity of the dead rather than broadcast the hideousness of their killers, if we lay down flowers instead of taking up arms, these gestures will protect what is most valuable in us–our spirit, and our humanity. A people that is physically and materially safe but is violent, suspicious, and cruel, is no people at all.]

We need to remember that children are watching us. The more we fear-monger and hate the more frightened and powerless they will feel. We cannot, hard as we try, guarantee that nothing bad will happen, but we can show them that it is possible to live without fear (even if we ourselves are afraid). We can show them the beauty and goodness that is in the world. We need to do this for them. And I think we need to do it for ourselves too.

 

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As a Proud Canadian, I Welcome Refugees

Last week I came across an internet meme that said the following:

By accepting millions of “refugees” from war torn countries into our countries all we are doing is inviting their wars in along with them. Changing their location doesn’t change their ideology.

This is, sadly, just one example of many ignorant, xenophobic memes that are being shared as the pressure on western nations to lend refugees fleeing war-torn Syria and Iraq a helping hand increases. Living in a world with the internet means having to expect this crap–the internet is, after all, everyone’s soapbox.

What I didn’t expect was to see an image of this text posted on the Facebook page of an old acquaintance of mine, a person I recall as being intelligent, polite, and certainly not one to turn their nose up at anyone just because of where they’re from or what they look like. It was a strange kind of punch in the gut–I know that politically I’ve never been aligned with a lot of the friends of my youth, but I thought surely, on this fundamentally human issue, Canadians, with their proud national heritage of providing aid and peacekeeping in times of trouble, would be more or less in agreement. I guess not.

First things first, the meme itself. There are a LOT of problems in this tiny snippet of text, including:

  • The word “refugees” being placed in quotation marks, as if there is some more legitimate kind of refugee than the kind that is fleeing almost certain death at the hands of either ISIS or their own government (particularly in the case of Syria, where the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government on its own people has been documented and confirmed).
  • The idea that refugees fleeing a war will bring their wars with them is absolutely ridiculous, and this should be obvious to any thinking person. For starters, how does being a victim of war and slaughter make this “their” war? And when has a refugee to Canada EVER brought “their” war with them? Did Jewish immigrants fleeing the Nazis bring the Third Reich to Canada? Did the English children sent to Canadian homes to ride out WWII bring the Blitz? Did my Latvian grandparents bring the Soviet army with them? No, no, and no. Refugees are FLEEING their oppressors, not packing them in a suitcase. They want to live far away from what is threatening them. That’s the point.
  • What is “their” ideology anyways? How can such a vague little sucker punch possibly presume to know the ideology of whatever group of people it is referring to as “refugees”? It wants people to fill in the blanks; it’s a wink and nod–i.e. “I’m not racist/ religiously intolerant/ paranoid, but you know what their ideology is like.” It’s not explicit (presumably so no one can dismiss it as Islamophobic), but I bet both the creator of this meme and the people sharing it are thinking of Islam. And if so, what on earth do either the creator or the person posting truly know of Islam? Sure, a lot of atrocities have been committed in its name, but the same can be said of Christianity, which has not only contemporary atrocities but also 2000 years of bloodshed and oppression to its credit. Do we presume Christianity is a naturally violent ideology in light of this huge body of evidence? No, not usually, so there is NOTHING which gives us license to do it to Islam, especially when its roots are shared with Christianity and it promotes many of the same positive qualities, including humility, peace, and, ironically, hospitality.

Normally, when I see a post like this on Facebook I disconnect. I unfollow, or unfriend, or just ignore it and try not to let it get me down. But sadly, these views aren’t uncommon and they aren’t just words. They’re harmful deep-rooted sentiments shared by more Canadians than I’d like to admit. Public sentiment shapes policy, and policy puts obstacles in the way of those Canadians who DO want to help refugees, and HAVE found a way to sponsor one or more people (this is especially true if the Conservatives continue on as Canada’s government after the October election, which is not unlikely, but even the numbers quoted by the NDP and Liberals, while higher than the numbers offered by Harper, are far less than the number of refugees we could accommodate, and will likely stay low if these kinds of sentiments persist). Besides, the person I know who posted it on Facebook isn’t someone who can be written off as a run-of-the-mill racist troll. There were obviously reasons this person felt the way they did, reasons that had a little more substance than “I don’t like people are who aren’t white and English-speaking.” (which is NOT a sentiment I would ever attribute to them and I’m not doing that now). So I decided to engage, because human lives are too important to ignore just because I don’t want to rock the boat by getting into a heated Facebook argument with an old pal.

I’m glad I did, because when you hash it out with someone instead of just reading something they shared on social media and thinking, “Whoa, that’s crazy”, you usually find yourself being presented with a more nuanced argument than the one found in a tabloid-esque meme. So I stuck it out (and to their credit, so did my acquaintance) and it seems  their actual position was a little more like this: ISIS has claimed they will sneak operatives into the West disguised as refugees [I haven’t heard of this anywhere else so I don’t know if this threat is credible but I understand why the idea would be worrisome], people seem to pushing for a lowering of screening standards to speed up refugee application processing times, obviously the lives of refugees are valuable too but it’s natural to care more about those close to you (i.e. Canadians) and want to protect them.

This kind of position is something we can work with. For example, if the idea of relaxing screening of refugee claimants is a big concern, that’s a reasonable thing to take into account in refugee policy. If we want to expedite applications for refugee status, there are safe ways to do that, according to former general and chief of defense staff Rick Hiller, who says, “Doing it quickly doesn’t mean you have to take short cuts.” As with anyone who comes into Canada, whether they’re fleeing a murderous caliphate or just driving from Seattle to watch their lame Seattle Sounders get their asses handed to them by the awesome Vancouver Whitecaps (except last time, when we lost), security, caution, and appropriate documentation is important.

As for the position that it’s natural to care more about people here in Canada than people in another country, I can certainly sympathize with that. I read about other people in other places dying all the time, and although it weighs on my heart, it is nowhere near the devastation I would feel if something happened to someone in my family or to one of my friends. Emotionally, I completely 100% understand.

But rationally, and as a Canadian who has benefited from, and indeed, owes her entire existence to immigration (I don’t think my parents would have met had my mom not been able to immigrate to Canada with my grandparents!), I can’t support policy that says that the potential for risk to even one Canadian life outweighs the very real deaths of thousands of refugees fleeing the Middle East (according to the UN Refugee Agency, 2,500 refugees have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean in this summer alone).

We are Canadians, which means that most of us are the children of immigrants ourselves (speaking of children, according to the UN, more than half of Syrian refugees are under the age of 18). We are proud of our various heritages, and we should be. We are proud and happy to live in a beautiful and safe country, and we should be. But we are not superior beings. My life does not mean more just because I was lucky enough to be born here and not somewhere else. Our merit as human beings has NOTHING to do with where we were born and everything to do with our actions. And right now, our close-minded, tight-fisted, fear-mongering rhetoric is showing that maybe WE’RE the ones with the ideology problem. Since when are Canadians deaf and blind to the plight of their fellow human beings?

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Note: If you are interested in helping refugees but can’t afford to sponsor an individual or family to come to Canada, there are many agencies providing refugees desperately needed aid and require donations to continue their work. Here are a few:

[In case you’re wondering, I’ve donated to the UNHCR, but donations to any of the above agencies will help if there’s one a little closer to your heart.]