A Personal Face to the Refugee Crisis

I can’t help but notice how hard it is for us to connect with news stories when we don’t have a personal face — someone we know, or a memory, or some simple way of helping us feel personally impacted by stories we read about.

My closest friend from college, about whom I care more than almost anyone except my family (and who has been like family to me for the past 20+ years), is an American (born in Cleveland) who also happens to be a Syrian-American and a Muslim. I got to catch up with him tonight, hear all about his new baby, and what he’s been doing with his life.

I asked about his family abroad, knowing that most of his parents’ (and his wife’s parents’) families had still been in Syria. His elderly grandma is still in Damascus, not wanting to leave her home. Some of his uncles, aunts, and cousins were able to go to stay with family in other parts of the Middle East. One cousin left after learning he was about to be drafted into the Syrian army. One cousin took his chances, and is now in Europe – one of the everyday people in the Europe’s “Syrian Refugee Crisis.” His wife’s mother and sisters stayed in their home in a suburb of Damascus – partly because they didn’t want to leave the home they’ve known, but they also weren’t sure that life as a refugee would be an improvement, given what they’ve seen of how the refugees have been received so far. Thinking on that hurts my heart. I cannot imagine making these decisions.

This same friend lives in one of the areas of the south that was devastated by storm damage and flooding that followed Hurricane Joaquin. He and his wife took their newborn to stay with their parents a half-hour away, but since he lives in a neighborhood with lots of retirees and elderly people, he drove up periodically to check in on his neighbors and see if they needed anything. You know, because that’s what good Muslims do. The neighbors would tell him how they’d been without clean water and had to boil water before drinking, or how the power had been out most of the past week, or how they couldn’t leave the house to go anywhere. This is what life is like in parts of Syria every day. Imagine if that were your everyday life, and you didn’t know that things would get better over the coming weeks, as utilities were restored and your life got back to normal. Imagine if this was life every day, with no hope on your horizon of it ever changing, at all. No normal. What if this were your only normal?

I’m reminded that people don’t flee their homelands for an unknown life as a refugee unless home is untenable. I’m reminded that these people fleeing their countries — these people in refugee camps or trying to find a new country that might welcome them with compassionate kindness and offer safe haven – these are real people, with families, many of whom had regular, everyday, normal, middle and upper-middle class lives back home. These are people who don’t love the Syrian government any more than we do, and who despise Daesh/ISIL in ways us non-Muslim Westerners can barely comprehend, because they aren’t claiming to represent us. They aren’t parading our religion in front of the world as their reason for murder, kidnapping, rape, and destruction. They aren’t going after our cousins, sisters, and extended family. They aren’t turning countries we’ve visited and loved – countries our grandmothers still love too much to leave – into rubble. If you think you hate what is happening in Syria, you should ask a Syrian how they feel about it. Believe me when I say that your grief, your rage, and your heartbreak, however huge they are – they’re pebbles beside the boulders of crushing grief and fear these refugees and the people who love them are carrying on their backs.

I have no answers. I know that these issues are complicated, and that they are made more so by the ridiculous level of misinformation and fear that spreads unchecked through biased news and social media frenzies. I share this with you not to preach, but only because it touched my heart and gave this crisis a personal face in a much more concrete way for me, and I think that’s what it’s going to take for us to act with integrity in the face of xenophobic calls to fear and intolerance. So, if you’re one of my FB pals who doesn’t know a Muslim in real life, or a Syrian, or an Arab, feel free to let my friend be your friend. He’s a stand-up guy – the best of the best. I can vouch for him. Let his family touch your heart like they’ve touched mine. And then let that be the lens through which you evaluate what you’re reading, saying, and sharing.

Love, C

On the need for interfaith worship

dukebelltowerRecently, I was catching up on past episodes of Interfaith Voices and heard their discussion about the Muslim call to prayer that was planned, and then canceled, by Duke University. Many of the speakers shared thoughtful dialogue about the value of interfaith acceptance, ways in which we interpret calls to prayer from various faith traditions, and why the situation at Duke University unfolded as it did. Speakers clarified that the call to prayer was initiated by the Duke Chapel staff, who (in the wake of anti-Muslim sentiment following a high-profile terrorist act) wanted to make sure that Duke’s Muslim student population felt welcomed and safe. They clarified that the “amplification” would be minimal, enough so that you likely wouldn’t even hear it if you were walking right by while wearing headphones. They clarified that the decision wasn’t requested or demanded by Muslim students, that the vast majority of the student body supported it, and that the primary pressures to reverse the decision came from outsiders, not from the current Duke community.

Amidst the voices that seemed comfortable with a pluralist society, there was one voice advocating against having the call to prayer at Duke’s bell tower. Repeatedly, she affirmed that Christians do not share worship space with non-Christians, that Muslims do not worship the same God as Christians, and that the call to prayer should not be done from the bell tower of Duke Chapel due to its Christian nature, even though it was the staff of Duke Chapel who initiated the public call to prayer in the first place.

There are many good points to be made that either add complexity to or refute some of the claims against a public Muslim call to prayer in a large campus with a pluralist community, and I won’t repeat them here, because many of them were addressed in this episode of Interfaith Voices (link). I will simply say that many Christians do share worship space with those of other religions (one local example being a time when the Chapel Hill-based Episcopal Church of the Advocate leased worship space from Kehillah Synagogue while searching for a permanent home).  “Allah” is simply the Arabic name for God, therefore “There is not God but Allah” simply means that believers in God give their worship to God. If it is offensive or contradictory to other traditions, it might be so to polytheistic or atheist philosophies, but does not contradict any monotheist stances. As for the adhan being performed from the bell tower, it is good to remember that Duke Chapel is there to minister and serve as a welcoming presence for the students of Duke University. If Duke wants to serve a student body that includes non-Christians, then it is wise for the university to be truly pluralist in its structure.

These discussions make me reflect on the need for interfaith worship, the purpose of interfaith worship, and the factors underlying resistance to interfaith worship. I don’t at all claim to have the answers, but I hope to explore these issues in more detail over the coming months. Given that three of our community’s brightest young people were murdered in an apparent act of anti-Muslim rage just weeks after Duke caved to public pressure to cancel the call to prayer, this is a discussion that bears having.

For now, I found a peripherally relevant quote from Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy that I wanted to share. I believe it has profound significance for understanding both resistance to pluralism as well as a desire to create structures to publicly legitimize pluralism.

“The problem [of legitimizing human-created structures] would best be solved by applying the following recipe: Let the institutional order be so interpreted as to hide, as much as possible, its constructed character. Let that which has been stamped out of the ground ex nihilo appear as the manifestation of something that has been existent from the beginning of time, or at least from the beginning of this group. Let the people forget that this order was established by [people] and continues to be dependent upon the consent of [people]. Let them believe that, in acting out the institutional programs that have been imposed upon them, they are but realizing the deepest aspirations of their own being and putting themselves in harmony with the fundamental order of the universe.”

Let them believe that they cannot share worship space with each other, ever, not even under specified parameters, and that to do so – to engage in interfaith worship or allow interfaith use of worship spaces – would sully the souls of those who participate, or profane the holy nature of the space for one group in its use by another. These rules are not set in stone; they are cultural, and culture is ever-growing, ever-shifting, and ever in the hands of those who are members of a particular community. I hope the Duke community maintains safe space for its own, all of them. I also hope that over time, awareness will grow about interfaith worship, what it means, and how it can benefit those who enter into it with an open mind. There is too much that could be gained by those who are willing.