Our Shared Humanity with Refugees

In response to increasing international pressure, President Barack Obama announced Sept. 10 that the United States would accept 10,000 Syrian refugees this year—not even a dent in the over 4 million refugees that have fled the violence and terror in their home country. And yet, this decision is at odds with the view held by most Americans. According to a recent poll, only 36 percent of Americans think that we should admit Syrian refugees into the United States at all. Most think we should completely close the door.

I would like to draw out two dimensions of our nature that I think drive much of the opposition to allowing Syrian refugees into the U.S.: apathy and cultural anxiety.

When the fighting broke out in Syria around four and a half years ago, we were heartbroken and indignant. As the months turned into years, many of us stopped reading and talking about Syria. Meanwhile, the terror increased and the casualties mounted: over 470,000 people have died. We became numb to their pain. Our minds flash: “That’s far away. That’s not my community. Not my friends. Not my family. Not me.” Then we change the conversation. A wave of empathy re-emerges with each viral picture that captures the immensity of their suffering, then again subsides. Soon, Aleppo does not even ring a bell. A short attention span for distant suffering is an immutable feature of our nature.

But I am afraid that there may be an even darker, more objectionable side to our psychology. More than just apathy for their plight, a kind of gut anxiety about other cultures resides deep in the American consciousness. Put in its most grotesque form: sure, we’re not paying attention anymore, but they’re also Syrians. They’re not like me. They look, speak, and talk differently. They like different foods and have different pastimes. Their customs are foreign, not American.

In these instances, we get caught up in our idiosyncrasies and fail to recognize the deep humanity that we all share. Nicholas Kristof exemplified this tendency best when he compared the reactions on Twitter to a photo he tweeted in memoriam of his dog to the comments on a column he published that same day about the suffering in Syria. There was a uniform outpouring of sympathy for his dog, but callousness toward Syrians pervaded the comments section of his column. “Why should we help them?” one of his readers asks. Sometimes, it seems, we see more humanity in a dog than our fellow human beings.

If we are to have a reasonable discussion about the role we can play in ameliorating the horror of the Syrian conflict, our starting point must be the humanity we share with Syrians rather than our indifference and cultural fears. I think we too often invert this order of considerations, and I am afraid that it has happened in our treatment of Syrian refugees.

If we begin instead from the starting point of our shared humanity, my guess is that many of the arguments about economic costs, security concerns, and value incompatibility will start to lose their hold on our collective reason. These arguments, which I will now outline, are just not strong enough to justify letting in zero Syrian refugees.

Resettling refugees is not cheap, particularly when you provide the level of support that we do in the United States. But in a nation of such vast wealth, the opposition to all Syrian refugees cannot be due to economic concerns. Several countries have accepted more than a million Syrian refugees without a marked effect on their economies. The United States has at other times embraced far more refugees. We took in around 150,000 Vietnamese after the fall of the pro-Western regime in Saigon.

Security concerns are not particularly persuasive, either. Syrian refugees undergo a strict vetting process that usually takes two years. Of the select few that are referred for the process, only a fraction make it through the intense scrutiny of various law enforcement, intelligence, and security agencies. It is extraordinarily unlikely that someone who wished to do us harm would A) actually make it through the vetting process and B) choose to endure this process in the first place when there are far easier ways to enter the country.

The debate over values is somewhat murkier. Many Syrian refugees hold beliefs that differ greatly from those held by many Americans. The extent to which these views—about God, the role of government, and more—are incompatible with our sociopolitical fabric is up for debate. To be sure, this is a debate that must be had. It would be naive for us to dismiss any concerns about value compatibility as mere bigotry. But we also must be vigilant in ensuring that our cultural fears do not unduly inflame our concerns. I am quite confident that America can take in Syrian refugees and balance lives saved with any perceived effect on American values, coffers, or security.

In order to have a reasonable debate about whether we should take in some of the more than 4 million refugees fleeing for their lives, we must consciously seek to overcome our natural inclination toward indifference, especially for those who may seem so different from us. If we did, I suspect that we would become more willing to open our borders to a larger number of Syrian refugees.

Featured Image by Manu Brabo / AP Photo