The Human Element of the refugee crisis

By Imam Mohamad Jebara

It’s easy to overlook the human element when overwhelmed by masses struggling to cross borders.

Syria was not born yesterday. Syrians are descendants of one of the world’s oldest civilizations, with Damascus continuously inhabited for thousands of years. It was on the road to Damascus that Paul of Tarsus would revolutionize Christianity as we know it. Home to countless religious denominations, Syria boasted the presence of ancient Christian and Jewish sects. Maimonides endorsed the Aleppo Codex, a great testament to the heritage of Syrian Jews.

It was in Damascus that the polymath and contributor to the field of hydraulics and piston design Al-Jazari worked. Syrians have been contributing members of American society; both the ice creme cone and burger bun were contributed by Syrian migrants in the 19th century. Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, was of Syrian descent.

Syria to the region is akin to China to Canada; Syria supplied much of the region’s produce and affordable clothing. Syria’s subsidization of food made it affordable for refugees coming from regions where the price of essential food and shelter was crippling.

Until recently, Syria had been the nucleus of asylum in the Middle East. Each time Lebanon and Iraq were destabilized, many found refuge in Syria, with neither tedious procedures as prerequisites nor visa requirements.

As the main haven for the region’s asylum seekers, Syria was home to millions of refugees from Palestine, Iraq, Somalia, and Lebanon. Comparable to most conflicts, the first to leave are those not native to the land. In reality, it is not a Syrian refugee crisis — rather, a major regional crisis.

In fact, among those most affected by the conflict in Syria are Syrian-born Palestinians. Unwelcome in most countries, many formerly prosperous in Syria are now living under inhumane conditions in crowded camps.

The Syrian people are well known in the region as hard-working and hospitable. Most of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon are working, though in most cases for less than $5 per day doing arduous jobs like construction and farming.

Though we, as Canadians, are placing demands on our government to contribute to the resettlement of refugees, I believe that wealthy nations in the Middle East must also step forward and do their part in fulfillment of the ancient call to love one’s neighbour.

The powerhouses of wealth in the region, though quick to supply the ideological funding for subverting insurgents, equipping combatants, and instigating sectarian abhorrence via ultraconservative clerics, have contributed little to no support to those most directly affected by the conflict.

Unfortunately, terminologies, rather than human needs, lead perspectives on issues. The “positive” connotation of “refugee” and “negative” connotation of “migrant” seems to sway public opinion.

I have had the misfortune of experiencing war first-hand, twice. As a young child, later as an adult, I experienced air raids, carnage, and destruction. I recall the first year after coming to Canada and living near the airport, feeling perplexing anxiety each time a plane passed above, always anticipating a raid.

In 2006, I was in Lebanon, having been trapped for the entire duration of the war. In fact, I was on the last ship leaving Beirut the day before the ceasefire. I remember feeling so proud of Canada when our government brought us home.

Religious communities have been quite active in raising awareness and doing their part. On Oct. 18, before the political race, faith leaders in Ottawa we will be cycling to raise funds for housing units being prepared for refugees.

Around the world, trillions of dollars are spent on war each year. How much better would the world be had such funds been reallocated for development?

Mohamad Jebara is Chief Imam and resident scholar at the Cordova Spiritual Education Center in Ottawa. This article first appeared in the Ottawa Citizen

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