‘We started the revolution holding roses. Hoping for support from the international community. Years passed. The roses turned into guns. But the hope for support continues. Still, neither roses nor hope helped.’
Abdulazez Dukhan, Syrian refugee
Abdulazez Dukhan is one of 4.5 million people who have fled Syria since the current conflict began in 2011. He is one of the countless people whose lives have been destroyed beyond recognition; one of the countless people forced to leave everything behind, in search of a safe place to live.
In January, Abdulazez penned a moving letter to the new American president, Donald Trump, with a simple and powerful message: he wanted to be heard. He wasn’t asking for an end to the conflict in his ‘beloved Syria’. He was simply asking for the West – and its perceived leader, Trump – to acknowledge the human side of the war. He was asking for humanity in the West’s response to his story.
‘Your words matter for us,’ he writes. ‘You might be able to change our future…Dear future president, we hope that someone can hear our words. We hope that you do.’
Sadly, his plea has largely fallen on deaf ears.
Just two weeks after Dukhan’s letter was published by Al Jazeera, Trump signed an executive order banning people from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Syria, from entering the United States (US) for 90 days. The order also placed a blanket ban on all refugees for 120 days, and Syrian refugees indefinitely.
The ban is currently suspended thanks to a federal judge temporarily blocking the executive order, but Trump’s message can be heard loud and clear. His response to the Syrian War and the current refugee crisis is to look the other way; to close the doors to those most in need of help.
Perhaps this should not come as too much of a surprise. Trump’s protectionism and stance on immigration are neither novel nor unexpected. Rather, they can be viewed as a symptom of a broader rise in nationalism, in response to a global refugee crisis that continues to worsen.
2016 was a year of many things, but prominent among them were nationalism, division, and an increasingly powerful global Right. Brexit and the rise of an assortment of right-wing parties defined politics in Europe. Across the Atlantic, Trump was elected to the Oval Office on a fervent anti-establishment and pro-US, protectionist agenda. Back home in Australia, we saw the re-emergence of Pauline Hanson and her far-right, anti-immigration One Nation party.
All these events occurred in the context of the highest number of forcibly displaced persons since World War II and unfathomable atrocities occurring throughout the Middle East, northern Africa and many other parts of the world. For many people – most notably the young and highly educated – these events were taken to be a clear marker of racism and an unwillingness to accept difference.
But they were also each the result of a free, democratic vote. They reflected the view of the majority. Further, to pass them off as simply racist, or a blip in the global political agenda, would be naïve and counter-productive.
When I first watched the video of Abdulazez Dukhan’s letter to Trump, I was brought to tears. Dukhan’s poignant words brought the horrors he had endured suddenly to life. For a moment, I felt I was able to gain a tiny glimpse into the harsh reality of life for the millions of Syrians living in a conflict zone.
This visceral response is by no means unusual or unexpected. It is the same as the West’s response to the ‘boy in the ambulance’ (five year-old Omran Daqneesh, injured by a blast in Aleppo in August last year) or to horrific images of the dead body of three year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish shore.
It is human nature to feel outrage at injustice when it is put in front of us. It is not, however, human nature to react the same way to atrocities removed from one’s own existence and social or political sphere. Without these images and videos that become – for better or for worse – perverse icons of death and destruction, it is all too easy for us to simply turn away.
This tendency means we often lose sight of the human side of tragic events to which we find ourselves unable to relate. This is exactly what we have seen in our politicians and our leaders. And it is in many cases exactly what we have seen in ourselves. Instead of compassion and unity, we have responded to horrors such as those going on in Syria with disaffection and, at times, apathy. Instead of reaching out to those in need, we have instead turned inwards, creating division and, on the other end, despair.
The unprecedented political phenomenon of 2016 is perhaps best encapsulated by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. In a remarkably insightful and prescient essay entitled ‘When and why nationalism beats globalism’, Haidt unpacks the rise in nationalism we have seen in the past year, and tries to answer the simple question: ‘What on earth is going on in the Western democracies?’
By resisting change and immigration, Haidt argues that nationalists are not, as many believe, being selfish or somehow morally inferior to those embracing change. Far from it. Rather than inciting discrimination, he writes, they are working to preserve their nation and culture. The division between nations that can arise from this attitude is a by-product, rather than an intended consequence.
The way to tackle this, then, is not to label nationalist or anti-immigration sentiment as ‘racism pure and simple’. As Haidt notes, ‘If we want to understand the recent rise of right-wing populist movements, then ‘racism’ can’t be the stopping point; it must be the beginning of the inquiry.’
Rather than labelling the majorities who voted for Brexit, Trump or Hanson as racist or ignorant, we as a society need to understand their motives, and why they have turned to the Right for answers. We need to understand why so many of us are seemingly willing to turn a blind eye to horrors occurring outside of our immediate vicinity. We need to understand why we have lost compassion in our response to the plight of Syria.
2017 can be different from the division we saw in 2016, but only if we resist the urge to vilify the ‘Other’, regardless of who that ‘Other’ is – a Muslim refugee, a status quo conservative, a member of the educated elite, or a right-wing authoritarian.
Instead, creating a space of mutual understanding between people of differing opinions may help bridge the gap that has formed between the Right and the Left; the Nationalists and the Globalists; the Educated and the Uneducated; the East and the West.
By doing this, we will start on the path towards finding an adequate response to Dukhan’s plea to Trump. And, somewhere along the way, maybe we will find that humanity that seems to have gone missing.
This article was originally published in the Doctus Project (February 2017)
Patrick is a medical student at Monash University, and the Editor in Chief of non-profit health journalism organisation the Doctus Project. He is also the Global Health Policy Officer for the Australian Medical Students’ Association, attended the World Health Assembly recently in Geneva, and late last year completed a policy internship at the Grattan Institute. Health-wise, his interests lie mainly in global health and health policy, and outside of the classroom (or hospital) he’s either reading a novel, writing about something new, or sitting at the piano crunching out a tune or two. This year he is completing a Bachelor of Medical Science (Hons) with the Centre for International Child Health and the Royal Children’s Hospital, looking at oxygen systems and provision of care in low-resource settings. Looking forward, perhaps this line of work might form the basis of a career, though there’s plenty of time for that to change.
Conflict of Interest