Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Thoughts on Syria

This is the first of a three part series on Syria. If you like what I said here (or even if you don't) please check out parts II and III

I was robbed on Friday. They took four computers, jewelry, and possibly our two favorite ducks. I have never felt such shame and anger towards my fellow humans. This feeling is new to me. But not because some young punk broke into our house and violated our privacy. Crystal meth is creating a lost generation on Kaua'i who are driven to unconscionable acts. I can understand that.

It's our collective response to the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II that makes me want to vomit. It's the venom that is coming out on Social Media that's making me lose faith in humanity. From my friends-- people I know to be smart, good people.

That, I can not understand.

In case you missed it, Governor Ige said that Hawai'i would welcome Syrian refugees with aloha. And Social Media exploded in vehemence. This xenophobic outburst caused Governor Ige to partially retract his statement yesterday by saying "I suppose in hindsight I should probably be more thoughtful about my statements."

Yes-- Governor Ige, you should have known better. While we don't talk about it, we all know that under the thin veneer of the aloha spirit, Hawai'i harbors an intense distrust towards outsiders. But no-- Governor Ige, you shouldn't have to apologize for Hawai'i's lack of humanity. This is one of those rare times where it's important to say "fuck public opinion, I'm doing what's right."

My wife was born in a Cambodian refugee camp. My grandparents and great-grant parents were refugees. Most of my grandfather's family were shot or gassed because they could not get political asylum quick enough. Jews were painted as communists, and communists were thought to be dangerous. Nearly 70% of Americans were opposed to accepting Jewish refugees on the eve of World War II.

And the wheel of history turns.

According to a recent Bloomberg Poll a majority of Americans do not want the US to allow Syrian refugees into our country. The Syrian crisis is our generation's holocaust. We're using the same xenophobic arguments against Muslims as were made against Jews. We're using the same Nationalistic arguments against foreign aide as were used then. And it's sickening to be an impotent witness.

I used to wonder how the world remained silent for so long in the face of Nazi atrocities. Now it's my generation's turn, and we're making the same obscene mistake.

Before I go on, I should clarify that I did read an article that said that liberals are exacerbating the situation by making this a moral issue. Since as soon as you mention "morality" you lose your reader. Conservatives think "self-righteous liberal, are you that out of touch?" And, instead, we should focus our conversation on something we can all agree on-- like increasing the security process to gain entry. Sorry, but I have more respect for whoever is reading this blog than to pander to that bullshit. If you think that minimal background checks are a problem, then take 14 seconds to google the process. It takes two years of security clearance to gain entry as a refugee. So, unless you're a politician looking to avoid substantive conversation on the issue (cough cough, Tulsi Gabbard), then can we all agree to discuss the real issues?

There are two main streams of argument against accepting Syrians. A) Muslims are terrorists and shouldn't be allowed in, and B) we should focus on our own homeless problems first. There are plenty of fringe arguments that I don't think are worth addressing- such as the fact that neighboring countries to the East are not taking in many refugees (when was the last time we compared our human rights standards to the Middle East?)

So-- are Syrians terrorists?

There is a line of reasoning that goes: Terrorists are Muslim. Syrians are Muslim. So Syrians are terrorists. This flawed logic and elementary thought process is what fuels all racial hatred. It's what is driving Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan to say that the US, despite international law, shouldn't accept any Syrian refugees. Despite anti-discrimination laws, it's driving Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush to say that we should only accept Christians. It's why Donald Trump is going as far as saying that we should deport all current Syrian refugees from the US. It's why 31 governors (it's worth mentioning that that's all but one of the Republican governors in the US) are saying that they won't accept Syrian refugees in their state, despite the fact that governors have no say over refugee placement.

Since state level job re-training and English language programs for refugees are funded by grant money through the Federal Government, all that the governors can do is block funding for those programs-- thereby starving refugees of the resources necessary for integration into the fabric of American society, and ensuring that it takes longer for them to become economically productive members of our community (more on that later).

But, are Syrians terrorists?  Only 1% of refugees who apply for resettlement are accepted by the UN. And then only a very small portion of those actually make it into the US. In order to gain entry you have to prove that you've never had any association with a terrorist group. Imagine that ISIS killed your mother and raped your sister. And your dad, in angry desperation, gives a pack of cigarettes to a young resistance fighter engaged in a pursuit against ISIS. Your entire family is now disqualified from ever gaining entry to the US.

Further, 75% of Syrian refugees are either female or under 18 and 38% are under the age of 12. That doesn't sound too threatening to me.

So, the answer is no. The chances of your own mother being a terrorist are currently higher than a Syrian refugee in America being a terrorist.

For the most part, what people in Hawai'i are focusing on isn't terrorism, but homelessness. So, will Ige's willingness to accept Syrian Refugees increase our rates of homelessness?

A quick slip into partisanship. Since this is mostly a conservative argument, speaking of homelessness, where was the outcry when your party was cutting food stamps? Or blocking unemployment benefits? Or opposing an increase in the minimum wage? Or reducing the expansion of veteran's benefits? Or blocking funding for the Affordable Care Act and Planned Parenthood?

Back to the topic: in the last decade, Hawai'i has resettled 21 refugees. For all the heat that Obama is in, he is only proposing that the US accept a paltry 10,000 refugees (out of 4.2 million looking for resettlement- for comparison, Germany, 1/26th the size of the US, is saying they will take in one million refugees this year). Proportionate to our state's population, that means our share would be 40. And Kaua'i's share will be two.

A recent World Bank study says that the inflow of Syrian refugees into Turkey caused average wages in the country to increase. Syrians now account for 20% of the population in Jordan, and the influx has caused no rise in total unemployment. Looking at the US, a study of the economic impact of refugees in Cleveland shows that "refugees are more likely to be entrepreneurial and enjoy higher rates of successful business ventures compared to natives. The literature also supports the argument that immigrants in general do not take jobs away from natives."

I'm currently writing this blog on the product of a Syrian refugee. Yeah, Steve Jobs, the guy who founded the most profitable company in history which created more than one million US jobs is the son of a Muslim Syrian refugee. Imagine if he never gained entry into the US.

Homelessness is a very serious issue in Hawai'i. When compared to the rest of the country, we have the second highest proportion of residents without a roof over their heads. And there seems to be no end in sight. But, the causes and solutions to homelessness are very different than the refugee crisis. Most of the fleeing Syrians are members of their educated middle class. They provide economic benefit and skills for the workforce. And, regardless of the economic value of Syrians, this is a humanitarian issue that is very different. Homelessness in Hawai'i is a complex mix of high home prices, failing public education, lack of shelters, and a lack of support for displaced Native Hawaiians. There is no evidence that Syrian refugees will impact those conditions.

Instead of offering any type of smug conclusion to this horrible issue. These pictures and captions of Syrian children taken by Magnus Wenman conclude this much more clearly than words can.

All of the captions are his words and are taken from his album on Facebook.

Walaa, 5, in Dar-El-Ias, Lebanon
Walaa, 5, wants to go home. She had her own room in Aleppo, she tells us. There, she never used to cry at bedtime. Here, in the refugee camp, she cries every night. Resting her head on the pillow is horrible, she says, because nighttime is horrible. That was when the attacks happened. By day, Walaa’s mother often builds a little house out of pillows, to teach her that they are nothing to be afraid of.

Back home in Baghdad the dolls, the toy train, and the ball are left; Lamar often talks about these items when home is mentioned. The bomb changed everything. The family was on its way to buy food when it was dropped close to their house. It was not possible to live there anymore, says Lamar’s grandmother, Sara. After two attempts to cross the sea from Turkey in a small, rubber boat they succeeded in coming here to Hungary’s closed border. Now Lamar sleeps on a blanket in the forest, scared, frozen, and sad.

Abdullah has a blood disease. For the last two days he has been sleeping outside of the central station in Belgrade. He saw the killing of his sister in their home in Daraa. He is still in shock and has nightmares every night, says his mother. Abdullah is tired and is not healthy, but his mother does not have any money to buy medicine for him.

Ralia, 7, and Rahaf, 13, live on the streets of Beirut. They are from Damascus, where a grenade killed their mother and brother. Along with their father they have been sleeping rough for a year. They huddle close together on their cardboard boxes. Rahaf says she is scared of “bad boys,” at which Ralia starts crying.
Eight-year-old Maram had just come home from school when the rocket hit her house. A piece of the roof landed right on top of her. Her mother took her to a field hospital, and from there she was airlifted across the border to Jordan. Head trauma caused a brain hemorrhage. For the first 11 days, Maram was in a coma. She is now conscious, but has a broken jaw and can’t speak.

Shehd loves to draw, but more recently all of her drawings have had the same theme: weapons. “She saw them all the time, they are everywhere,” explains her mother when the little girl sleeps on the ground alongside Hungary’s closed border. Now she does not draw at all. The family brought neither paper nor crayons with them on their flight. Shehd does not play anymore either. The escape has forced children to become adults and share concern for what happens in an hour or a day. The family has had difficulty finding food during their wandering. Some days they have had to make do with apples they were able to pick from trees along the road. If the family had known how hard the journey would be they would have chosen to risk their lives in Syria.


  1. Absolutely brilliantly written. You took words that I was thinking but couldn't exude properly and displayed them poignantly. Mahalo!

  2. Beautifully said. These issues do intersect and it's very helpful to see how you have presented the facts and choices.
    I feel many of the comments made in anger are mostly out of fear and lack of information on the issues. Many of us who tune in to main stream media are plummeted with trauma over what is happening in the Middle East and it becomes very difficult to process.
    We can choose to see what we have in common over what we don't. Facing our truth and choosing moral values over fear is what needs to happen.

  3. Thank you Luke for have the courage and decency to say what no one else will. Giving into fear is akin to admitting defeat. This country was built on allowing refugees to become citizens. Isn't that what made our country "great"? Makes me think it's our entitled culture of exclusivity that has made us not so great anymore.

  4. Luke- We must have compassion.
    But, you are re-writing history. The Third Reich was a government that systemically and carefully killed its citizens.
    Syria is in a civil war. A civil war is a civil war, government doctrine is government doctrine.
    My grandparents were guests of Der Fuhrer and their memory should not be blemished by misrepresentations of history.
    Facts are facts.

    1. It's wonderful you were able to make this article about you somehow.

    2. I'm not sure if you read the piece, but it's about supporting refugees, not intervention in the war. Because their Civil War is such a quagmire, and our history of intervention in the middle east is so terrible, and Assad is such a despicable character-- we should be doing all that we can to support those who are leaving their country. That flood of humans fleeing their country is the humanitarian crisis that I compared to World War II. In an effort to keep the piece focused on Syria, I didn't go into American refugee policy in World War II. But... it was terrible. From the turning away of the St Louis (900 people on board denied entry into the US and forced to return to Europe) to the congressional failure of a bill to allow entry for 20,000 Jewish children (public opinion polls were nearly 2 to 1 against allowing them in). As Vox puts it:

      "The bill's opponents (both in Congress and groups like the Immigration Restrictionist League, the American Coalition of Patriotic Societies, and the American Legion) took an "America first" approach to rejecting refugees: America should focus on helping its own needy and homeless citizens rather than taking in anyone new. But as is often the case, there was a fine line between "America first" and outright xenophobia. The wife of the US immigration commissioner (who also happened to be a cousin of President Roosevelt) testified that "20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults."

      That is the repeat of history that I was referring to.

  5. Very good, and I like to add that numbers and gender balances are different from Turkey to europe, to also clarify why people say more man come as woman, which is true for germany that I visiting in the moment, since it is harder to make your way illegally to europe to become a legal refugees. Do come to europe most can't afford pay trafficker prices for a whole family, is highly dangerous to travel with trafficker in boats and trucks, thay sent thier man in hope once you legal refugee that can stay, they can than legacy and safe get thier families back. Numbers: 2/3 are Man, 70% are under 30 and of that 1/4 are 14-24. Refugees from syria, Eritrea and Somalia mostly man, Balkans states was equal as it is worldwide with refugees.

    1. Correction : 1/4 of 14-34 year old refugees are male, here then source in german, with links to the report, thanks Google translate might be accessible

  6. It's interesting to me, your conjunction of your stuff (losing it), social media (which is powered by the very latest technological "stuff") and the outburst of xenophobia that you describe. There are connections there, all kinds of connections, which none of us really want to face squarely - what ties our iPhones and Macs to ISIS, to Syria, to suicide bombers.

    1. Definitely. But, I think that that would require some logical connections that I'm not prepared to make yet.

      Of relevance, 99.3% of my site traffic in the last 24 hours was driven through Social Media. And 80% of it was read on a mobile device.

      In my eleven years of being addicted to Social Media, I have never seen so much hate as I did the day after Ige's announcement. Yet, I have also never had a post shared as much as this one was.

  7. Mahalo. Love is always the answer.

  8. Undermining the resettlement of refugees would have been a primary intent of the Paris attack. Turning these people away now would encourage more such attacks. Also, yesterday, the reality show star who would be president told a reporter he would register Muslims. Someone said something about history repeating itself?

  9. Steve jobs was hardly a "product" of a Syrian refugee...his birth father was Syrian but he was wealthy and met his birth mother in college...they have him up for adoption soon after birth and was raised by american suburbanites ...

    1. Do you consider President Obama to be an African American?

  10. I posted a comment here earlier this morning which appears to have vanished into the ether so I shall attempt again!
    The Syrian conflict is not a civil war (as widely disseminated by the media) but rather a foreign intervention: a foreign-funded, foreign-armed, foreign-supplied, foreign-trained intervention. The arming and training of various opposition groups has been ongoing since 2006.
    The goals of the anti-Assad rebels are wildly different and shift alliances frequently: they also are there for different reasons and/or end games. Mercenaries seeking profit, hardened Jihadists (experienced in Chechnya etc.) seeking advancement of the Islamic State and so called 'moderates' are amongst the coalition (US SA Qatar Israel) funded armed and trained rebels.
    Are there inherent struggles and conflicts amongst the people of Syria? Of course, and that is exactly what the coalition capitalized on to destabilize and then destroy a sovereign country.

    1. Thanks for commenting. Sorry about your original one dissapearing. For a program made by Google, the Blogger interface is shockingly bad. I've had issues commenting on my own posts before.

  11. Thanks Luke again you stand up for the underdog.....I really admire your courage And I back you wholeheartedly....