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In the wake of the horrific attacks in Paris on Nov. 13, there has been a crushing backlash against refugees from the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. A cartoon has been circulating on social media showing a Native American man greeting a Pilgrim, saying, “Sorry, but we’re not accepting refugees.” As Americans prepare for one of the most popular national holidays, Thanksgiving, which commemorates the support and nourishment provided by the indigenous people to English refugees seeking a better life free from religious persecution, a wave of xenophobia is sweeping the country.
In the U.S. Congress, no less than six separate bills have been put forward to block any federal funding to resettle refugees from Syria or Iraq, and to empower states to deny entry into their “territory.” Imagine if all of a sudden we had 50 “statelets” creating their own border checkpoints, stopping all travelers, looking for anyone suspicious, i.e., any and all Syrians. So far, 31 state governors have essentially demanded this. Republican Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback issued an executive order forbidding any agency of state government from cooperating in any way with Syrian refugee support efforts. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have called for a pause in the Syrian refugee program, with the support of Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer.
In Europe, similar policies are being proposed, with an announcement from Poland that it would pull back from the Europe-wide commitment to take in Syrian refugees. Far-right-wing parties in France and Holland have gained traction with their anti-immigrant rhetoric as well.
“It’s both morally reprehensible and factually wrong to equate these people with terrorists,” Peter Bouckaert told us on the “Democracy Now!” news hour. Bouckaert is the emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, and has spent the past few months in the Balkans and Greece, closely monitoring the refugee crisis firsthand. “They’re actually fleeing from the terrorists, and they’ve faced horrors of war in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan. Many of them are coming with their families, trying to bring them to safety and a better future in Europe. And they should be welcomed. They will contribute to our society, and they have a right to asylum,” he said.
While the cartoon of the indigenous man and the pilgrim may be humorous, the crisis is not, and the imagery from the wars and the flight of the refugees is numbing. Bouckaert was one of the first people to share the photo of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi after he drowned, lying face down on the sand in the Turkish beach town of Bodrum. Last September, the Kurdi family was trying to reach Greece, just a dozen miles across the Aegean Sea. They bought passage on a smuggler’s small boat, which capsized. Aylan, his brother and mother drowned, along with at least two others. The photos of Aylan’s corpse, first in the sand, then being carried by a Turkish soldier, shocked the conscience of the world. “That is still the reality on the beaches of Europe, two Aylan Kurdis are still drowning every day,” Bouckaert said.
A core argument by those who would deny entry to Syrian refugees was a passport found at the scene of one of the suicide bombers in Paris last week. It was a Syrian passport, and contributes to the belief that violent jihadists can enter Europe posing as refugees. “That’s exactly why they left a fake Syrian passport at the scene of their attacks, because they would love it if we shut the door on the people who are fleeing their so-called Islamic caliphate,” Bouckaert explained. “Our most powerful tool in the war against Islamic extremism, are our values. It’s not our military planes and our bombs. The only way we can fight against this brutality, this barbarism, is with our values. And if we’re going to shut the door on these refugees, we’re giving a propaganda victory to ISIS.”
And yet, the U.S., French and Russian response to terror is to pummel the city of Raqqa, considered the capital of the so-called Islamic State, but also home to hundreds of thousands of civilians who will now become terrorized refugees themselves. They will follow the millions who have already fled, only to find they have no place to go. Add to that the refugees from countries like Iraq and Afghanistan: people fleeing for their lives from the wars being waged by the United States.
It has been almost 400 years since that first, fateful Thanksgiving feast in Massachusetts. Xenophobic policies like those threatening to shut out refugees from these wars, if allowed to stand, should serve as a shameful centerpiece at every Thanksgiving table this year.