Syrian refugees, rhetoric and respect

It isn’t respectful to view another human being as a “crisis”.

The news of the latest refugee “crisis” has hit the newspapers and I have mostly dragged my feet in reading about it. When I finally sat down at my computer to leaf through the many pages of writing on Syrians leaving their homeland in the face of war, the rhetoric around their leaving felt entrenched and established. Refugees “flooding” into the E.U. are creating a “crisis” of epic proportions which we should all be very, very worried about, mostly because we are so very rich and they are so very poor. And poverty, of course, means that they are trouble. How trouble? Oh, they are probably terrorists.

I don’t mean to be flip, but it is exhausting. It is exhausting to participate in a culture that refuses to recognize human dignity. Let me be clear that my argument is not that it is not a crisis of epic proportions to contend with war and be forced into the brutally violent decision to leave one’s home and community, to flee, to face starting anew. No. What I want to make clear is that using the word “crisis” in articles about how Westerns nations should react as Syrians resettle outside their original communities and first homeland is the assault. In other words, I object to the media that argues about how to “deal with the crisis”. 

It is also exhausting to reduce and essentialize people as objects of pity. As if that is all a human is– someone to fear, or someone to pity. Most of the humans I know are to be loved and enjoyed for their unique, dignified nature. (Sometimes, particularly with cranky family members, humans are to be tolerated until the holiday dinner is over).

Language is a slippery thing. The things we say affect things, and the words we choose to describe things influence our perceptions which in turn shape the actions we take. It is not a crisis to welcome newcomers into our wealthy homes, but a gift. When visitors come to visit, we are given the gift of getting to be unsettled. We are forced out of our ordinary routines which provides an opportunity to think differently about the world. Visitors bring interesting thoughts and ideas and stories. Sometimes, visitors bring interesting and new objects for us to learn about and be curious about. Refugees may be visitors or they may not. They will not be visitors if they either choose or are unable at some juncture to return to their homeland. Then, they will be our new neighbors. But regardless, today, people from Syria are visitors who come and bring gifts with them.

When we change our language, our rhetoric, we get to perceive things differently. What if newspapers talked about the visitors, the new neighbors– instead of the crisis? With such language we might be able to choose to be delighted, to be interested, to take up this opportunity to stretch ourselves and dig deep into those parts of ourselves that are generous and loving. Hear me out for a moment: when we are in our ordinary routines, we can often forget that our purpose in this broken world is to love. We get mired in daily personal sufferings like that never-ending rush hour traffic or that the guy whose armpit your nose is stuck in on the subway who smells just so terribly wretched. What a joy to get to think about visitors, someone who is outside of our little mundane routines, who may need love. What a joy to get to give, to be stretched as humans. What a joy to love.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Joe says:

    Not sure if you’ve encountered this poem, but I think it certainly speaks to the issue of being a refugee.


    no one leaves home unless
    home is the
    mouth of a shark
    you only run for the border
    when you see the whole city
    running as well

    your neighbors running faster than you
    breath bloody in
    their throats
    the boy you went to school with
    who kissed you dizzy behind the
    old tin factory
    is holding a gun bigger than his body
    you only leave
    when home won’t let you stay.

    no one leaves home unless home chases
    fire under feet
    hot blood in your belly
    it’s not something you ever
    thought of doing
    until the blade burnt threats into
    your neck
    and even then
    you carried the anthem under
    your breath
    only tearing up your passport in an
    airport toilets
    sobbing as each mouthful of paper
    made it clear that you
    wouldn’t be going back.

    you have to understand,
    that no one puts their
    children in a boat
    unless the water is safer than the land
    no one burns their
    under trains
    beneath carriages
    no one spends days and nights in the
    stomach of a truck
    feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
    something more than journey.
    no one crawls under fences
    no one wants to be

    no one chooses refugee camps
    or strip searches where
    body is left aching
    or prison,
    because prison is safer
    than a city of
    and one prison guard
    in the night
    is better than a truckload
    of men who
    look like your father
    no one could take it
    no one could stomach it
    no one
    skin would be tough enough

    go home blacks
    asylum seekers
    sucking our country dry
    niggers with their hands
    they smell strange
    messed up their country and now they want
    mess ours up
    how do the words
    the dirty looks
    roll off your backs
    because the blow is softer
    than a limb torn off

    or the words are more
    than fourteen men between
    your legs
    or the insults are easier
    than rubble
    than bone
    than your child body
    in pieces.
    i want to go
    but home is the mouth of a shark
    home is the barrel of the gun
    and no
    one would leave home
    unless home chased you to the shore
    unless home told
    to quicken your legs
    leave your clothes behind
    crawl through the
    wade through the oceans
    be hunger
    forget pride
    survival is more important

    no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in
    your ear
    run away from me now
    i dont know what i’ve
    but i know that anywhere
    is safer than here

    — Warsan Shire


    1. Yes, I posted it on fb a little while back. It is an incredible poem, thanks for sharing again in its entirety here. That imagery of home being the “mouth of a shark” is stunning.


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