• Taylor Foote

Nothing to fear but fear itself: America’s problem with Syrian refugees

Photo courtesy of libertyellisfoundation.org

The poem “The New Colossus” is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, meant to be the first thing immigrants would see as they reached the United States of America. The statue itself was a gift from the French, a fact that seems especially poignant. The sonnet was written by Emily Lazarus, and one segment in particular is not only the most recognized, but the most indicative of the American spirit. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" The American people are currently debating whether or not the United States should grant Syrian refugees asylum in the United States. I believe that it is our duty as not only Americans, but as human beings, to overcome our fear and welcome them with open arms. We might be afraid, but we can only be brave when we do the right thing despite our fear.

On November 13, 2015, members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) staged a violent attack on Paris, France. Altogether, 130 people were killed in the attacks. What followed was an overwhelming show of solidarity and support on the part of humanity as a whole. People all over the world declared their support of the people of France in their time of tragedy. Countries that normally offered cold shoulders to each other offered warm condolences in their stead, and flags the world over flew at half-mast. Those countries came together to support France in their time of need. It was one of those moments that made us remember that we’re all human beings, all sharing this planet with each other in the communal struggle of life. This tragedy was inflicted upon us by those same humans, but through a show of goodwill and compassion, we could undo the hurt that they had wrought and show that humanity as a whole is good.

However, just as quickly as those French flags shown proudly on our Facebook profile pictures, reality came rushing back. ISIL was supposed to be a distant threat, cowards that killed prisoners on camera to threaten places they couldn’t reach. But these men had killed 130 people in the middle of a major city in the Western world. Suddenly these threats against our greatest cities were taken seriously. ISIL weren’t boogeymen making vague threats over the internet anymore, they were a terrorist group with the will and capacity to launch devastating attacks against major civilian population centers. Against you or I, and the people that we love. Those far-off conflicts in the middle-east weren’t abstract ideas anymore, they were dangers that any of us could find ourselves in the middle of.

So we grew afraid. Our thoughts turned from ‘how can we help’ to ‘how can we stop this from happening to us.’ We broke down the kind of people that staged this terrible attack: people from (or having visited) the middle-east that follow the Muslim faith. That last part, of course, is the most important. As any practicing Muslim would tell you, Islam is a religion of peace. It’s about loving thy neighbor as thyself, and avoiding violence. In fact, it sounds extremely similar to a religion that myriadAmericans follow. But scared people are not quick to embrace similarities. They are, however, quick to highlight differences.

It makes sense, then, that when Syrian refugees were seeking asylum in America, we did not embrace the similarities. We did not see people like ourselves. We did not see fathers and mothers and sons and daughters fleeing the same people that attacked Paris and killed so many. These people were coming straight from a middle-eastern country, and very many of them were followers of the Muslim faith. So instead, we saw the same people that attacked Paris and killed so many trying to enter our country. We did what scared people do, and we got defensive.

This isn’t the first time that Americans, as a people, have reacted defensively to people seeking asylum in our country. During the Holocaust, the United States turned away Jewish refugees from entering the country. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), there was a certain quota of immigrants that could come from certain regions. The U.S. had hit its quote of German-Austrian immigrants, so it was forced to turn them away. However, relaxation of those quotas was impeded by xenophobic, anti-Semitic Americans (in the general public as well as the government) during a time of economic depression. In addition, the USHMM site states that “Once the United States entered World War II, the State Department practiced stricter immigration policies out of fear that refugees could be blackmailed into working as agents for Germany.” In one particular example, 908 Jewish refugees had sailed to the United States from Hamburg, Germany on the St. Louis, and they were forced to return to Europe. The USHMM states that 254 of the 908 (nearly 28 percent) are known to have died in the Holocaust after being turned away from America. By the time the Holocaust ended, nearly 11 million people had been killed. An estimated 6 million were Jews.

Indeed, World War II was a time of great fear. Fear does strange things to people. When the Empire of Japan launched their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, America had been keeping out of the war. Suddenly, we were thrust into it over the course of a single, shocking day. How did we react? We got defensive. After Pearl Harbor, people were suddenly suspicious of their Japanese neighbors. History.com writes that “rumors spread, fueled by race prejudice, of a plot among Japanese-Americans to sabotage the war effort.” This was especially true on the West Coast, where a large number of Japanese immigrants lived. So, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which forced any and all Japanese Americans to leave the West Coast and be relocated into internment camps. This came about as a result of pressure from “farmers seeking to eliminate Japanese competition, a public fearing sabotage, politicians hoping to gain by standing against an unpopular group, and military authorities.” It didn’t matter that many of the interned had been born American and had never been to Japan, and it didn’t matter that some of the interned had fought for America in World War I. They were relocated just the same. 120,000 people were interned in 10 different camps in 1942. The last camp closed in 1946, nearly a year after the end of the war.

Once again, the American people are scared. The Western world has been dealt a great blow, and we are afraid to suffer another. Many Americans believe that by allowing refugees into our country, we are opening ourselves to another attack. That ISIL soldiers, like the ones that attacked Paris, are infiltrating the United States in a bid to attack a major American city. ISIL posts on social media actively, showing pictures of American cities and revealing plans to attack. There are threats every day that disrupt activities at schools, businesses, and public events. It’s possible that the next group of terrorists could come into the country as Syrian refugees. We could be letting ISIL walk right in to our country to attack.

We are so afraid of this reality that we don’t stop to consider the reality of the people that are seeking refuge in our country. For many Americans, Syria is more a buzzword than a country at this point. We know it’s in the middle-east, the same place that ISIL is. That far-off concept that has so often invaded our reality. What we don’t know is that the threats that we are so afraid of facing are the reality in Syria. In the midst of a civil war between the Syrian government and the Syrian resistance movement, ISIL began operating in the country. As this is going on, other countries are launching air strikes on various positions in Syria. ISIL controls 45% of Syria which means that there is no one to protect the Syrian people. Their country is too caught up in civil war to protect them, and so they are at the mercy of ISIL. The same people we want to keep out of our country are people that, until their country turned into a warzone, could have been any one of us. From March 18, 2011 to October 15 of 2015, the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights counts civilian casualties in Syria at 115,627. 12,517 of those civilian casualties were children.

I believe it’s time for the American people to show that we aren’t afraid; that being American is something to be proud of. Growing up, I always believed that the Americans were the good guys. That in the end, the values we fought for and continue fighting to defend were righteous. Obviously, our country is not as heroic as I childishly believed. But that doesn’t mean we can’t stand now for the same values that would make the good guys. ISIL believes that we stand against all Muslims. By turning away Syrian refugees in their time of need we are not only showing ISIL that they are right, we are letting them win. If we are afraid of letting men, women, and children into this country as they flee our common enemy, then we’ve already lost what made this country great in the first place.

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" This passage represents the American Dream, and the values that Americans have fought and died to defend. But if we are so willing to forget those values as soon as we are frightened, then maybe France deserves its statue back.

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