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Can Westerners Help Refugees from War-torn Countries?

It has been a little over ten years since I arrived in the U.S. in 2006. I arrived when the horrific consequences of Iraq’s occupation were at their climax. Since then, I have engaged in endless public talks and lectures at universities, churches, and many other venues. I have had individual conversations with many friends and strangers sharing with them the countless images and experiences we have witnessed about what it means to be at the receiving end of war and death. I have also documented many of these experiences in writing and from different angles. Just to share a couple examples, see the work on  Iraqi education, teachers, and professors living under the most difficult circumstances of wars and suffocating UN sanctions. Earlier this year, I published selected pages from my diary documenting childhood memories during the first Gulf War. The latter was published to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the tragic consequences of the first Gulf War on the Iraqi people, which seem to have faded in world’s memory at this time.

Today I will zoom in on a question I have consistently encountered over the last ten years based on my positionality previously in Iraq and now living in the U.S. It is a question asked by many well-meaning friends as well as people who don’t quite get the meaning of what is happening in the Middle East and other war-torn countries producing millions of refugees. The question is: “what can we do to help the refugees?” Many of my American and European friends have been asking this question even more lately due to the Syrian refugee crisis. Last week, the question came up in a presentation I gave to some undergraduate students at Duke University.

To start, a few things must be acknowledged once and for all: first, this article is not to dismiss the many humanitarian attempts made worldwide to help those in need. These human acts are important and needed. In fact, I have previously engaged in such work and I would be honored to do so again in the future when a suitable opportunity presents itself. I honor the many good people in Western countries and elsewhere who do wrestle with these questions, and who do work hard to heal some of the many wounds of our bleeding planet. The world is certainly more tolerable because of such people. Second, the “West” in this context refers to the countries of North America and Western Europe. Third, the primary purpose of this article is to have a deeper examination and self-reflection on the question of “what can we do to help refugees?” rather than to dismiss such help altogether.

This question is deceivingly simple. It is simple if one mistakenly thinks that the answer doesn’t go beyond the usual approach of providing refugees from war-torn countries with basic needs like food, shelter, and some type of menial labor just enough to keep them alive. We must remember that refugees are almost always people whose homes, family members, and everything they once loved and held dear are either destroyed or seriously at stake. So, yes, as a short-term and temporary response, the least one can do is to help provide them with basic human needs and dignity. Yet, when all things considered, by providing refugees with basic needs, they are not dead, but they are not quite alive either. They are simply trapped in a zone in which staying under such circumstances and swallowing humiliation in the “host” countries is unbearable; going home is impossible, because often there is no “home” to go to anymore; and going elsewhere is rarely an option either. This is precisely what “trapped” feels like. Thus, a short term response is not only inadequate, but in fact it enables and indirectly facilitates the acts of the Western governments that wage wars and destroy the countries from which these refugees come from.

Given this bleak reality, we need to discuss a long-term response to the refugee crisis. As we take this long-term approach to the question of “how can we help refugees,” some surprising and perhaps even disturbing things will unfold. The first problem with the “how can we help the refugees” question is the question itself. The premise of the question is flawed and problematic at two levels: first, it draws a clear boundary in power relations by assuming more power to the “we”, the Western people doing the “helping”, and therefore simultaneously grants them the power of choosing to deny refugees this “help”, if so they choose. The second problem with the question, which is directly related to its flawed premise, is that it seriously lacks any self-reflection. If we analyze some of the narratives of why many people in Western countries are either uncomfortable or outright hateful and disgusted by the influx of refugees, we will see that those narratives consistently revolve around points like: “therefugees are here to take our jobs,” “they are here to use our welfare state and benefits,” “they are here to destroy our cultures, freedoms, and values,” and so on.

When examined, it becomes clear that many of these narratives are primarily concerned with economics. The refugee is seen as somebody coming to Western countries to receive humanitarian aid at a time when many people in those countries are living precarious lives, struggling in their scarce and “at will” jobs, or simply feeling constant uncertainty in a future increasingly shaped and driven by neoliberal market policies that serve the minority elites in power. In this sense, many Westerners are right to feel angry, uncertain, and unsafe in their own societies. We need to acknowledge this. Having lived in the U.S. for ten years and having travelled around Europe extensively, I sympathize with these concerns. Yet what many fail to see is that the Western states are never ever short of money when it comes to spending billions of dollars to actually destroy other countries, either through direct occupations as it happened in Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other places worldwide; or intervene by other means through arming different groups and death squads as they have been doing in Syria and have done before in many other countries in central and south America. The outcome is the same: there are millions of lives destroyed. There will be millions of refugees as a result. Should we then be surprised that when Western powers destroy a certain country that there will be an influx of refugees? Do we expect these wars to happen and for their effects to simply stay “over there”? How can we really expect all this to happen while people here carry on doing business as usual? Do Westerners expect to just relax and enjoy a cold crisp beer on their porches on a warm summer night and see no refugees before their eyes after all these wars waged by their governments?

So, “what can we do to help refugees?” well, it seems to me that the solution starts right here in Western countries. It is in finding how this problem is caused in the first place and fixing it once and for all. It is clear that the solution lies in stopping Western governments from invading and destroying so many countries under different pretexts like spreading “freedom”, “democracy”, or “fighting terrorism”. Now, obviously some people in Western countries know this well, which is why they have strongly opposed and demonstrated against wars, signed petitions, put bumper stickers on the back of their cars to express their outrage, and so on. But their voices are totally ignored by their so-called “democratic” governments that insist on going to wars to serve the minority of the political and corporate elites in the U.S. and Western Europe. In the case of Western Europe, where there is relatively more awareness about the impacts of wars, the people were and still are unable to stop the elites in these countries from joining the U.S. in its mission of war and destruction in the Middle East and elsewhere. The structure of all these governments is so corrupt that they are in theory multi-party political systems, but in practice almost exclusively dominated by two political parties at the most, that are bought and sold by those who have the money to put them in power or remove them from it. What often happens is that these two-party systems are two sides of the same coin, especially when it comes to foreign policy dictated by those who have the money to bring them to power in the first place. Domestically, they may have different agendas and plans, hence many people’s illusion that they actually have different political options. But many people don’t realize that the domestic and the foreign policies are actually intertwined. If your government needs to spend billions on waging wars, guess where are they going to get it from? Yes, from your schools, health systems, and other essential public services and institutions. In foreign policy, Western governments rarely diverge from their foreign policies on the Middle East, Russia, or any country around the world that remotely threatens their hegemonic aspirations. For example, let us ask: Is it a coincidence that the U.S. and the EU speak in one united voice to sanction the Russian people and frame them as an enemy? Why are there not at least a few Western European countries who would decide to break the sanctions imposed on Russia? Is it a coincidence that their stance on Syria is almost identical? Is it a coincidence that most of them have participated in destroying Iraq during the first Gulf War? Is it a coincidence that most Western countries punished the Iraqi people for thirteen years with the most inhumane sanctions ever imposed in history? Is it a coincidence that none of these countries took a firm stance to prevent the second Gulf War from taking place? But more importantly, going back to the main question of “how can we help the refugees,” is it really “democratic” that the people in Western countries, no matter how much they loathe wars and the invasion of other countries are unable to stop their governments from waging these wars? Is it a coincidence that surveillance and repression of many freedoms have increased so much in the U.S. and Western Europe using “war on terror” as an excuse?

As we try to honestly confront these questions, it becomes clear that most Western people are not free, and therefore unable to stop all these wars producing millions of refugees. The only people free to do whatever they please are the Western elites, not the general Western public. This means that Westerners, too, are as trapped as the refugees in changing the course of these events and actions, because their governments are simply not respecting their wishes. This means that instead of asking “how canwe help the refugees,” the question must be seriously revised to become: “how can we and the refugees work together to stop this madness?” Revising the question changes the entire story. The first step to do so is to realize that one is unfree. To helprefugees, it must be realized that the circumstances that led them to come to Western countries are not only beyond their powers, but apparently, they are beyond the power of most Westerners also. The few powerful Western elites, on the other hand, benefit from wars twice: first, by destroying other countries and stealing their resources under different pretexts. Second, by bringing millions of refugees to Western countries and using them as cheap labor. This is where the strong connection between the military-industrial-complex and the refugee-industrial-complex precisely lies. The elites benefit from these intertwined industries while hypocritically also paying a lip service to “inclusiveness” and “multiculturalism” in a phony way, as if they care about these now worn out terms that are becoming more harmful than useful. The outcome is that the Western elites make the majority of the disgruntled and disempowered Western populations spew their hatred on the wrong people, the refugees. In this way, the refugees and most Westerners are allies in this battle. They are both, though from different positions, fighting against the same warmongers, repressive powers, and undemocratic systems that are simply not listening and respecting their peoples’ wishes.

And so, before you ask “how can we help the refugees,” remember that you actually need to first help yourselves by stopping your governments from causing the circumstances that are leading to these crises. Good luck with that. I am not being sarcastic. It is a hard and a tough battle for all of us. As we go through this together, we need to remember Paulo Freire’s words in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, where he writes: “True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the ‘rejects of life’ to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands —whether of individuals or entire peoples—need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.” Before you hate refugees, remember that ideally, most people wish to live peacefully and with their dignity intact. Remember that many of these refugees would rather come to you as “tourists” with cameras in their hands under much better circumstances rather than as people with no options but to put up with the hate and humiliation awaiting them in the often not so hospitable “host” counties. Before you protest refugees, protest your governments that are either intervening militarily in their countries or arming different groups and factions in their territories to kill each other. The refugee crisis is a deeply political crisis for all actors involved. Before you go in the streets demanding “no more refugees,” rest assured, that these people would never have chosen to come all the way here to take your menial job offers while see you protest their very human existence. Likewise, before you extend your benevolence to these refugees by “tolerating” them, as if doing them a favor, remember, that you actually can really “love” them because there is so much you can learn from their stories. There is so much work that can be accomplished when you hold hands with these refugees towards mutual human goals. Eduardo Galeano writes: “I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.”

In the end, in today’s world, a refugee from a war-torn country is a messenger carrying an important message to all Western people. That message is: “I am here because of what the warmongers in your so-called ‘democratic’ governments have done to my country and my people.” And so, read the message and work with the messenger rather than shoot them.  “How can we help the refugees?” The Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, provides a clear answer in his novel, Anthills of the Savannah, where he writes, “While we do our good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary.” You can help refugees by helping yourselves; by holding accountable and voting out all the neocolonial, neoliberal warmongers in Western governments and institutions. There is more work to be done right here than “over there”.

More articles by:

Louis Yako, PhD, is an independent Iraqi-American anthropologist, writer, poet, and journalist.

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