"It's amazing, we're going to take in all of these people from Syria, but we have all these homeless people on our streets," said a few white males I overheard the other day at a Starbucks. "You see, all of these people criticize us, but they all want to come here."
Have to say, very valid points. We do in fact have severe issues facing Americans today from unemployment and poverty, to homelessness and increasing disparity and more. The only problem is that most Americans, like those middle-aged men at Starbucks, lack the proper context and adequate information to understand all the dynamics at play, and just how much emphasis our government places on things like war as opposed to resolving our problems at home. For instance, if they knew that only about four or five US-trained rebels are left on the ground in Syria after the Defense Department spent $500 million to train and equip people according to recent testimony by General Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, they might have a more nuanced discussion as they sipped their lattes. But when Americans are inundated with messages of 'backward Muslims', and public discourse is infused with vile words from the likes of Ben Carson and others, it's much easier to blame the refugees for their own plight, and continue to act as if we're doing them a favor by allowing a small percentage of the millions displaced into our country. Perhaps it's time for a reality check.
The images of refugees fleeing war torn regions and attempting to find a safe haven in Europe are beyond heartbreaking. Desperation abounds as mothers and fathers cling to their young and climb onto overcrowded trains, push back against tear gas and water cannons, walk for days and weeks just to reach more blockades, and literally die as they search for a way to live.
Millions have been uprooted from places like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. But if you watched coverage of this humanitarian crisis in the West, you would think that these poor souls brought this upon themselves. Rarely, if ever, is there a focus on our role in destabilizing these nations and the region at large. A direct result of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and actions elsewhere), this catastrophe that is occurring in real time should put us all to shame.
According to Save The Children, five million Syrian kids are in need of assistance, including over 1 million who have sought refuge in other countries. As if the situation couldn't get any more devastating, the reality is that many of these children are utterly and completely on their own. A large proportion are either orphaned because of conflict, or sent away by mothers and fathers who have to make the agonizing decision to let go of their own flesh and blood with the hope that they may have a chance to survive in a foreign country. As Dr. Yasmin Haque, Deputy Director of Emergency Programs, U.S. Fund for UNICEF, recently highlighted at the Blouin Creative Leadership Summit, nearly 30% of these Syrian children are approached to join armed groups - only exacerbating this crisis. And Save The Children says roughly a quarter of Syria's schools have been either damaged, destroyed or used for other purposes. What will happen to these little ones? We are talking about a lost generation.
Instead of having a discussion about these very real horrors and our direct involvement in the region (and continued funding of failed programs like arming the so-called rebels), the focus back home has been on ill-fit candidates and their comments about Muslims. Before Republican Presidential hopeful Donald Trump failed to correct a supporter who said the U.S. has a 'Muslim problem' and that we need to 'get rid of them', he was suggesting that the country was accepting Muslim Syrian refugees and not Christian ones. Without a factual basis for his outlandish claims (who needs facts after all?), Trump seized on anti-Muslim hysteria that the right is all too happy to push into our discourse, and, in turn, into our lives. But while people like Trump and Carson, (who said he would not advocate for a Muslim to lead this nation), have no hesitation throwing red meat to the most ignorant of their base, apparently, the left has its own serious issues.
On last Friday's 'Real Time with Bill Maher' on HBO, the always outspoken and increasingly Islamophobic host was at it again. While discussing the arrest of 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed at a Texas high school over a homemade clock, Maher had the audacity to say: "It's not the color of his skin. For the last 30 years, it's been the one culture that has been blowing shit up over and over again." Too bad for Maher and others trying to mask their blatant bigotry, that statement is far from true. If we were to go by his logic, the U.S. has been blowing up plenty of shit around the world with our bombs, drones and other weaponry. Does that mean every American is guilty and under suspicion? Just because death and destruction are cloaked under the guise of liberation and democracy, does not make it any less deadly for the innocents losing their lives on the ground.
Because of the Iraq War - that let's remember, we were drawn into based on fabrication of 'weapons of mass destruction' - a colossal vacuum was created in the area that gave rise to all kinds of radicals. That instability and turmoil spilled into Syria and elsewhere, and what was the end result? ISIL (or ISIS). A group so brutal that even Al Qaeda says it is too extreme. Time and again, refugees are depicted as coming from savage nations where they do not know how to conduct themselves as a society. But it's important to note that it's a lot harder to keep law and order though when someone comes in and breaks up your rule of law and structure, and dictates how things should be done.
Instead of discussing the utter destruction left in the wake of let's say, our war in Afghanistan, what we get instead is a reinforcement of the lie that Islam is synonymous with terrorism (never mind the fact that the biggest victims of terrorism are Muslims themselves). Anti-Muslim bias has in fact become so normalized and is so rampant, that rarely, if ever, are those fleeing overseas humanized. Why is it that they are so often referred to as 'migrants', when they are in fact refugees seeking actual refuge? Why isn't there more global uproar over the way in which places like Hungary are treating them, going so far as even arresting many and beating/firing tear gas on others? The silence is almost deafening. As heads of state gather at the United Nation for the General Assembly, it would be nice if they actually took responsibility for the state of the world and did something. There's enough blame to go around for everyone.
No one is arguing that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is innocent in all of this; quite the opposite. But is his brutal method of holding on to power any different than our desire to get him out of power? It's a literal game of thrones, and just like it has been throughout history, civilians get caught in the middle. As the old saying goes, there's no such thing as permanent enemies or permanent friends - just mutual interests.
Congress granted the Pentagon $500 million for the program for 2015 to train and equip rebels, and the Pentagon has requested another $600 million for 2016. The aim was to produce over 5,000 fighters by the end of 2015, and 15,000 within three years. According to recent testimony, Christine Wormuth, the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy said that there are between 100 and 120 fighters being trained - a far cry from 5,000, let alone 15,000. The amount of money being spent on actions like this, as well as wars that have cost trillions is just mind-boggling. But instead of focusing on these realities, we're constantly reminded that Muslims are terrorists, inferior and savages who cannot conduct themselves in a civilized manner. After all, nothing drums up blind support for war then subliminal (and sometimes overt) bigotry.
For all the lives lost (including thousands of our own soldiers), we as Americans must ask, what have we gained? As many families struggle to find work and put food on the table, why are trillions being spent to fund these wars and covert operations? And with groups like ISIL more powerful then ever, what have we done to eliminate terrorism? If anything, things are far worse now than before. Today, we are witnessing the human tragedy of these conflicts right before our very eyes. The question now is, will we take a long hard look in the mirror to acknowledge and accept our role in creating this crisis?
The hard truth is, that reflection might haunt us.