By Kelly Hayes-Raitt
“Why do they have such high expectations?” my friend Anna complains about the Syrian refugees who’ve flooded Europe. “Why are they so ungrateful?”
In the wake of German Chancellor Angela Merkel embracing 800,000 Syrian refugees and newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau taking in 35,000 of them, 31 American governors declared they would not welcome Syrian refugees in their states. It’s a pompous position at best, since governors have no authority to close state borders to anyone who has legally entered the U.S.
In contrast, on Dec. 8 the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a symbolic motion to “reaffirm the county’s commitment to hospitality, to democracy and to compassion” toward refugees—especially Syrian refugees—Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the proclamation’s sponsor, said during the discussion.
“It’s not for the County of Los Angeles to say, ‘We don’t think you built the walls high enough; we’re going to build a higher wall,’” added Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who cosponsored the proclamation.
Anna and I are lounging in a cheery room warmed by a fire and twinkling Christmas lights. In London for the holiday season, I missed witnessing firsthand my home county’s resolution. Instead I’m witnessing anguished ambiguity from my European peace activist friends who are experiencing “refugee fatigue.”
Not buying into the fear stoked by Donald Trump and other U.S. presidential candidates, they instead are burned out by news reports of traumatized refugees whose needs seem insatiable.
The numbers are staggering: Twelve million people – half of Syria’s population – have fled their homes since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war four years ago. That’s three times the number of people living in the City of Los Angeles! Almost 70% of these refugees are women and children, according to the U.S. State Department.
During these four years of war, the U.S. has accepted fewer than 2,300 Syrian refugees, although President Obama recently pledged to accept 10,000 more over the next fiscal year.
In 2015 alone, nearly one million refugees from throughout the world flooded Europe, according to António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. That feels huge, he points out in a recent TED Talk, but it’s only one refugee per 2,000 Europeans, whereas in Lebanon there’s one refugee for every three Lebanese.
In explaining this recent influx into Europe, Guterres cites a World Bank study: 87% of Syrians who’ve resettled in nearby Jordan and 93% of Syrians now in Lebanon live below the national poverty lines, and only half of refugee children attend school.
Guterres argues that what’s needed is increased multinational cooperation and more flexibility for international financial institutions to provide aid, explaining that Lebanon and Jordan aren’t eligible for the World Bank’s reduced rate loans and grants, for example, because they are classified as “middle income” countries — even though they are bearing the financial brunt of the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.
Though a bit shocked, I understand Anna’s sentiment.
“They’ve lost everything,” I say gingerly. “Imagine being so desperate, so terrified for your children’s safety, so traumatized by the horrors you’ve witnessed, that you flee every comfort and familiarity you know to start over in a new country, with a new language, new customs, no family, no job, no economic security, perhaps discrimination, and lots of uncertainty. … And the kids I’ve spoken with, they’ve all witnessed horrifying things: Siblings brutalized or killed, schoolmates orphaned, parents unable to provide assurances or security. I can’t imagine…
“So they come to someplace that has promised sanctuary, usually after a harrowing, exhausting, expensive trip, arriving with only what they could carry. Then they are corralled into institutional dormitories or camps while they wait to be ‘processed’ like cattle. Is it any wonder their patience breaks?”
Anna’s eyes fill with tears, but I sense she isn’t totally convinced.
Perhaps I am not totally convinced either. I’ve met refugees who seemed ungrateful, impatient, almost entitled. I have to remind myself that in Middle Eastern culture, it’s an honor to take in anyone who shows up at your door. As a visitor, I’ve frequently been the recipient of overfeeding from families struggling with post-war food shortages. It must be hard for them to fathom a culture with such a fundamental difference about hospitality.
For my part, I’m proud that Los Angeles County attempts — at least by a symbolic gesture — to mirror that hospitality.
“All this motion says,” Kuehl concluded, “is that Los Angeles will continue its tradition, its devotion, to being a place [where], once the United States government has said, ‘This person may enter,’ [we] will say, ‘This is a good place to live.’”
(Ed. Note: Kelly Hayes-Raitt has worked with Iraqi refugees in Damascus, Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and Palestinian refugees in the West Bank. She blogs at Living LargeInLimbo.com. This article originally appeared in The Argonaut newspaper in Los Angeles, CA.)
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