Refugee Matters

Today we have a guest post from a dear old friend of Dorian and I.

I met Chris a lifetime ago when I worked at a radio station in a small town in the central valley of California. Dorian has known him longer, and it was she who introduced us when we started dating. He was even at our wedding,

Thirty or so rotations around the sun later, Chris now lives in Germany with his wife, Karen, so it’s been a while since we’ve all hung-out in person. Thank goodness for social media!

Chris and Karen also have a tendency to get pretty busy with things such as what you’re going to read about below, so that’s another reason we haven’t seen much of them in the past decade. But given the circumstances, we’re more than happy to share them with the world.

~Dave


REFUGEE MATTERS

By Chris Lewis

A group of refugees at the Croatian/Slovenian border.

HOW REFUGEES ARE MADE

Isis was coming for him in the morning. If he didn’t go with them and agree to fight for them, they would kill his entire family as an example to others. He was about 16 years old, and this had already happened to some of his friends, so he knew this was no idle threat.

He went to bed for the last time in his own home. When he woke up the next morning, life would never be the same again.

Some time after midnight, he was suddenly awakened. Somebody was in his room. Who was it? Had the militants come already? No. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he discovered it was his uncle. His uncle told him to be quiet and quickly whisked him away into the night.

This is how refugees are made.

I met this young man and his uncle several months later after they arrived at the refugee transit camp where I was working in Croatia. It was a real pleasure to develop a friendship with them, along with others who were staying in a room with them, over the following months.

One day, we were eating KFC in a local shopping mall when a man walked by with his dog. The young man, whom I will refer to here as K, beamed with joy. He told me he loved dogs. He used to have one in Syria, but it was killed by a bomb along with his five-year old brother. One day he hoped to have a dog again, while unfortunately he could never replace his brother.

Now, almost four years later, he and his uncle are living good lives here in Europe. They have learned the local language, his uncle has a good job, and K is studying and preparing for his future.

THEY ARE HUMAN BEINGS

Sadly, though, I keep seeing people posting on social media about how they are convinced people like K are all “terrorists” or how they all want to “force Sharia law on us” and take over Europe and America. They are, however, very wrong. K and his uncle just want to make a life for themselves. They are not trying to force their religion on anyone, and they respect the beliefs of those around them. They are not terrorists, and they are not criminals. They are humans.

And they are not unique.

I know a lot of refugees because I have spent a great deal of time getting to know them. They have cooked, eaten, played games, talked, cried, and laughed in my home on numerous occasions. A Syrian man cuts my hair every month in a local hairdressers’ here in Germany. Others serve me in local restaurants, and one refugee put me to sleep a couple of years ago. He was my anesthesiologist in the hospital when I had an emergency operation.

I am deeply saddened when I see people saying hateful things about people like K. Of course I know that the people who say these things have probably never even met a refugee. They have also probably never actually talked with a Muslim, but they fancy themselves experts in who they are and what their motives are.

Chris Lewis giving hot drinks to a child in a refugee camp. The child took them and handed them to his family inside the tent.

WHY PEOPLE TELL THEM TO GO HOME

Here is the reality. The stereotypes that people tend to spread so passionately tend to be way off the mark, and they are almost always based on assumptions that have little or nothing to do with reality. Here are a few of the objections I often hear from people who think refugees should not be welcomed or loved:

Objection #1 –

Real “men” would stay and fight. In other words, they believe K should have chosen to die. That was, after all, his only choice in Syria. Had he stayed, he would have either been forced to fight for his enemy or to be brutally killed after watching his family die.

“Oh,” they say, “but he could have fought back.”

Ridiculous! How long could he have fought back before being overwhelmed by the militant soldiers who would then have killed him and his family anyhow?

And the situation in Syria is so much more complicated than many people realize. Which side are these “real men” supposed to stay and fight for? Who are the “good guys” in this war? That is incredibly hard to figure out sometimes.

And why judge them for not wanting to be killers?

Objection #2 –

They’re all young men of military age. Therefore, they’re all Isis soldiers coming to take over the world.

I’d laugh, but the assumption is so cruel and misinformed that I find it impossible to laugh. Why do people assume they’re all terrorists? Is it because they believe they’re all Muslims and that all Muslims want to kill all of us?

There are so many unfounded assumptions in this objection that it is almost impossible to unpack them all. Where do I begin?

A group of refugees in a refugee camp in Croatia. The couple in the middle are married and hoped to start a family and a new life together in a land without bombs.

First of all, they’re not all young men of military age. I know many refugees who are young women, as well as some who are older people. It is true that they are mostly younger people, but this is because the journey they had to make to get here is extremely difficult and dangerous. It would be too difficult for most older people. Also, families tend to spend all their hard-earned money to send the able-bodied family members ahead because they have the best chance of starting a new life here and making a living.

I know refugee families who have come together, as well as young couples who came and started families together. I know young women who are studying in the universities and seeking to start a new life in a land where they can experience freedom and contribute to society. I know a variety of people from a variety of backgrounds who all share one thing in common: They ran from war and are looking for peace, hope, and a chance at life. Is that wrong? I don’t think so.

Chris Lewis blowing bubbles with refugee children in Serbia.

However, we still need to face this underlying question: Are the majority “young men of military age?” Perhaps. It is true that there are a lot of young men amongst the refugees, but I don’t have a problem with that. They had a very good reason to come! Many of them came because they did not want to be killers. They didn’t want to be forced to fight for causes they didn’t believe in and to kill their own neighbors and families. If you don’t understand that, that’s sad to me.

Also, they’re not all Muslims. There are also a lot of Christians, Yazidis, Druze, and even atheists among them. Yes, the majority are Muslims (at least on paper, as one young Syrian brother and sister explained their religion to me a few weeks ago), but the assumption that all Muslims want to “take over the world” or “force Sharia law on everyone” is another one that has no basis in reality. I don’t know one refugee personally who has ever even tried to convert me, and I don’t personally know any who want to force the nation they are living in to change their laws and force everyone else to follow them. Instead, they are trying to learn how to adapt to the place they are in.

Objection #3 –

They’re all criminals.

The assumption that refugees are rapists and thieves is another version of the anti-refugee rhetoric I keep hearing from certain circles. Meanwhile, I live in Germany, a country that has taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees over the past few years. It is also a country that recently reported its lowest crime rate in thirty years.

The assumptions don’t match the facts. That’s why all these anti-refugee assumptions are prejudices, not realities. Are there criminals amongst the refugees? Yes, of course there are. If you take any group of hundreds of thousands of people you will find some bad apples. You’d find criminals amongst Americans and Europeans too. Yet, they are not criminals because they are refugees any more than mass shooters in the USA are mass shooters simply because they are Americans. I would not ban all Americans from Europe just because there are criminals in America, so I can’t ban all refugees either. It would be hypocritical.

Overall, most refugees are just people who fled war and are looking for an opportunity at life. How can we be so cruel as to blame people for being victims of war?

GETTING TO KNOW A REFUGEE MIGHT CHANGE YOUR MIND

But why should I have to explain all this? If you are reading this and you have made any of the above assumptions, my challenge to you is simple: Try to get to know a refugee or two before you judge them. You may be surprised. You may soon discover that they are not even that different from you.

Refugees working with me in a homeless shelter to feed European homeless people.

While I was working in the refugee camp in Croatia, one group of volunteers came across to help for a short time that I will never forget. There was one older man in their group who hated refugees. I have no idea why he came in the first place because in the first day or two of his visit he was constantly saying things that reflected the very assumptions I mentioned above.

I assigned him to work with a team of refugees who would help him do gardening in the asylum center. This kept him away from everyone else and forced him into a situation where he would spend almost all of his time with two or three young men “of military age.”

This experience changed him. He got to know these young men as human beings. He discovered that they weren’t really that different from his own kids back in America. They laughed at a lot of the same jokes, and they had a lot of the same dreams and desires.

They were human beings.

He became good friends with them, and his prejudices melted away. He went back home as an advocate for refugees.

THE LITTLE GIRL WHO HAUNTS ME

A large group of refugees waiting to cross the border from Serbia to Croatia.

I’d like to finish my thoughts with a few comments about a picture I took a few years ago on the border of Serbia and Croatia. The little girl sitting above the crowd haunts me. When people post hateful slander against refugees and insist that they should “all go back where they come from,” I think of her.

They would condemn her to death. Meanwhile, she inspires me to stand up for her right to life.

What about you?


Chris Lewis, originally from California, lives in Saarbruecken, Germany. He has worked for years as a humanitarian aid worker, especially in recent years – helping refugees from Syria. He also currently teaches English and Spanish in Europe while continuing to seek ways to help those less fortunate than himself.

He has also written 4 books and is currently working on a book about his experiences in the refugee camps.

TECHNICAL NOTE: I have closed comments for this post because I did not write this piece, and Chris hasn’t the time nor inclination to follow the comments here.

If you’d like to get in touch with Chris, just follow him on Twitter. He’s very engaging on that platform, and he welcomes direct messages.

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