“They’re going to steal all our jobs.”
“They’re depriving my child of a proper education.”
“They’re going to bomb us and blow up our city!”
Oh the ignorance in these phrases.
The plight of Syrian refugees is regarded with much scepticism and untamed bigotry. However, contrary to popular belief, these Muslim refugees are not plotting any deadly attacks; instead, they are innocently in search of a safe and promising place to call home.
The SS St. Louis, a ship of 908 Jewish refugees was turned away from Florida in 1939. The ship returned to Europe, where half died in the Holocaust. This is something worth remembering when Donald Trump and his fellow republican leaders and supporters say we shouldn’t take in any Syrian refugees.
Let’s pause for a second.
The comparison between Jewish refugees and Syrian refugees matters. It offers great insight into our past, present and future state. However, why are we ignoring the echoes of the past? Is it because we fear the unknown? The unknown of what may lie ahead. Or maybe we are just eternally doomed to racist tendencies.
It is part of human nature to judge quickly, hate quickly and even fear the unknown quickly. These instincts, as Tajfel and Turner state, play up the qualities of the “in-group” and denigrate the attributes of the “out-group”, thus contributing to the development of prejudices that further lead to racism.
Racism. Racism is a very abstract term that prevails throughout history. Group identity, which is the belief that one group, usually the “in-group”, is more highly regarded than the “out-group”, plays a significant role in the development of racist tendencies. People in the same group believe they are similar to one another, but outrageously different from their counterpart. This categorization, according to Tajfel and Turner, is the root cause for social bias and discrimination. Therefore, believing a Muslim is a terrorist is a racist stereotype just as believing a person who wears glasses is weird and nerdy. These stereotypes are ingrained in the mind of the “in-group” in order to hopefully boost their greedy self-esteem. Also, these labels are proof of ignorance, because not all Muslims are terrorists just like not all Italians are mobsters and not all African Americans are thieves. Similarly, people who wear glasses are not necessarily nerdy; they just have reduced vision. And, this human ignorance propagates fear. Fear that what if the Muslim is a terrorist? What if the nerdy dude with glasses is smarter than me?
As Nancy Rebelo detailed, fear is the product of a lack of knowledge and a lack of understanding; it’s an emphasis on things that are, perhaps, not as important as we think they are.
For example, it’s a different religion.
“We look at things that make us different, as opposed to looking at everything that makes us similar” states Nancy Rebelo. “And so if we start focusing on all the things that make us similar, then perhaps we wouldn’t be so fearful. But, we tend, I don’t know why, to focus on the differences. And, there is this kind of cultural supremacist mindset where we tend to think that our culture is better; is normal. So when people come from a culture that is different, we perceive theirs as, somehow, less valuable than ours and that’s just a perception; it is not reality.”
Think about it for a second.
The way we perceive the world determines our actions. But, sometimes our perception is flawed due to the power of collective memory.
According to Roediger and DeSoto, collective memory refers to how groups remember their past. And, in order to grasp something essential about a country’s national identity and outlook, it is important to understand their memories.
Memories can bring the past alive but it’s the way we remember them that holds value.
Let’s take the U.S. bombings of Japan during World War II, as an example. Roediger and DeSoto unveil information from a recent study that illustrates the difference between collective memory in young adults and old adults. Adults alive during the Second World War rated the bombings as a positive tactic. Their reason: it ended the war and freed thousands of American lives. Whereas, young adults, not alive during the Second World War, rated the bombings as a negative tactic. Their reason: they killed and injured thousands of people. These two opposite interpretations of a single event are perfect examples of collective remembering. The way an individual remembers a given situation shapes their future impulses and decisions.
However, if collective remembering exists, then collective forgetting also occurs. Is this why we forget the past? Is this why history repeats itself? Is this why we are doomed to racism and xenophobia?
Xenophobia. The fear of the Stranger. The fear of the Other.
Instead of helping the Syrian strangers, we close off our boarders because we want to ensure our own livelihood. However, what most people fail to recognize is that bringing in people through immigration and refugee creates jobs due to the increase in demand for things. Also, Canada does not have a sustainable birth rate; therefore we need people in Canada. Because people are ignorant to these facts, they turn a blind eye to immigration.
Nancy Rebelo is a avid believer in the statement: “those who don’t study history are bound to repeat it and those who study history are bound to sit back and watch as everyone else repeats it.”
During the interview, she also goes on to state that:
“Time has erased the fears that people had about the Jews in the 1940’s and 1950’s. We no longer have those fears. These people are part of society now. When we talk about Italian immigration and the fears people had; we no longer have those, because time has erased those fears and we’ve proved that there is nothing to fear. So now, there’s another group and the fear has risen again. [In] 30 or 40 years from now, we won’t even be worried about this group of immigrants anymore. They will have contributed to society; we will have had contact with these people; our children will be educated with the newly arriving groups of children; and it will end the fear. But, who knows where the next wave of people who are looking for a safe place will come from. But, wherever that wave is from, we will likely have fear of those as well.”
But, how can we go beyond complaining and fearing and truly make a difference?
First, we need to get informed.
Even if people have different cultures, different desires, and different needs, they should still be granted the right to live peacefully.
Nationalistic interests are all fake and selfish, because as Nancy Rebelo declares once more:
“[We] have our success because we were fortunate enough to be born in a place that doesn’t have war, but if we weren’t, it wouldn’t make us any less valuable.”
Therefore, it is important to accept and help Syrian refugees and not leave them stranded as they were in their war-torn country.
The reality of a Syrian refugee is an average person’s nightmare. They are helplessly stripped of their human rights and our bigot actions are not helping the cause.
To deviate away from the conventional solution of being the bystander, sponsorship is an excellent way of eliminating fear of the newly arriving immigrant group. Sponsorship can actually propagate social change unlike protests. According to Sara Burke, Senior Policy Analyst at Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in New York, “more than half of all protests experience some sort of repression in terms of arrests, injuries or deaths at the hands of authorities, or subsequent surveillance of suspected protesters and groups–surveillance that is carried out by both governments and private corporations” (Burke 30).
A family of 4, including 2 children, would require at least or around 22,000$ to live in Canada for 1 year. Even just a donation will go a long way.
So, before you go marching in the streets (with the intent to bring upon change) with some flimsy old poster stained with words that people won’t even read, open up a computer and consider sponsoring a Syrian family. Sponsorship will generate greater awareness and change to the extreme hardships of these Syrian refugees as opposed to barricading streets.
As sad as it may be, “today’s 3-year old Syrian orphan, it seems, is 1939’s German Jewish child.”
Instead of turning away ships full of promising refugees, we should welcome them with open arms. We know how the plight of Jewish refugees ended in the 1940’s but we are so fearful to accept change and diversity that we are letting the same events reproduce.
Although it is very clear that we are vulnerable to preconceptions and to an unconscious desire to divide the world into “us” and “them”, research indicates: “prejudices are fluid and that when we become conscious of our biases we can take active-and successful- steps to combat them.”
It has been proven by Gaertner and Dovidio, two research psychologists of the University of Delaware in Newark, that when team members work together, bias was reduced by significant amounts. Therefore, instead of working against each other, we should all work together to achieve common goals.
It may be difficult to escape the trap of conventional wisdom, however a good beginning would be by treating people as individuals rather than members of a group.
As Syria is crumbling to ruins, we are still prospering. Consequently, instead of turning away ships of refugees and forcing innocent people to surrender to the arms of death, we should be the beams of hope in their life: granting them peace, serenity and a chance to start fresh.
This is the best way to avoid the trap.
The trap of dividing the world in two.
Because, if we discriminate against one part of humanity, then we are eternally doomed to discriminate against all of humanity.
Burke, Sara.”What an Era of Global Protests Says about the Effectiveness of Human Rights as a Language to Achieve Social Change.” Sur: International Journal on Human Rights, vol. 11, no. 20, Jun-Dec 2014, pp. 26-33. EBSCOhost.
Rebelo, Nancy. Personal interview. 29 March 2017.
Roediger, Henry L. and Andrew K. DeSoto. “The Power of Collective Memory.” Scientific American, 28 June 2016, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-power-of-collective- memory/.
Tharoor, Ishaan. “What Americans thought of Jewish refugees on the eve of World War II.” The Washington Post, 17 November 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/11/17/what-americans-thought-of-jewish-refugees-on-the-eve-of-world- war-ii/?utm_term=.561a08e1bcb8.
“What does it mean to be Muslim? There are 1.7 billion answers.” YouTube, uploaded by Vox, 21 November 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-Dzm1QgQck.
Winters, Jeffrey. “Why We Fear the Unknown.” Psychology Today, 01 May 2002, https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200205/why-we-fear-the-unknown.
Zaromb, F., Butler, A.C., Agarwal, P. K. et al. “Collective memories of three wars in United States history in younger and older adults.” Memory & Cognition, vol. 42, no. 3, April 2014, pp. 383-399. http://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/s13421-013-0369-7.