Syrian refugee, Syrian immigrant

Scattered Tribes: What Do We Owe The Syrian Refugees?

I wrote this letter in response to a question from a friend on Facebook about my views on Syrian refugees.


You wrote me, somewhat out of the blue, to ask how I will feel when extremists make their way into the USA under the guise of refugee status and start killing Americans. I assume you’ve seen my Facebook posts as of late commending the state of Oregon for its refusal to join 30-or-so other states in passing (non-binding anyway) resolutions to keep out any and all Syrian refugees.

Normally, I try not to get too political on social media because it seems only to breed anger and divisiveness, but this issue has been an emotional one for me. Partially because I am Syrian, yes, but the threads run a bit deeper than simple genetic lineage.

I do not have any interest in beginning a protracted debate, but you’ve always struck me as a worldly and wise and measured kind of guy, so in the interest of a respectful exchange of ideas, I will answer you as honestly as I can.

First bit of honesty: this issue is something I’ve privately been struggling to decide how I feel about for much of the year. Like, really, really battling. My husband and I talk about it a lot. We go back and forth. Can you save everybody? Definitely not. Can you save a select few people whom you deem particularly deserving or in need? Probably, but it’s going to come at a cost, and one you might not be able to take full measure of until you’re already intractable committed — I hope that we as a country have learned this much, at the very least, from our escapades in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We humans are a tribal sort of folk. It’s how we’ve survived this long: resources are scarce, but by working together in packs, we’re able to get and keep hold of a larger portion of the things we need to be comfortable and successful. Of course, this also means we must harden our hearts to anyone outside the pack, to the collective Others.

These days, Middle Eastern folks and brown-ish people in general are definitely occupying the space of The Other in our country’s collective subconscious. Particularly Muslims. You didn’t invoke religion in your message to me. But it is surely the subtext for so much of the ideological divide at work in our country right now, so I’m going to invoke it myself and cop to a few things that are pretty unflattering. It feels the fairest and most honest way to begin.

As a liberal, I really, really prize tolerance. Someone asked me awhile back what my life motto would be. I told him, without even thinking much, that it would have to be “Live and let live.”

Second bit of honesty (and this one’s hard): As a feminist, I am enormously troubled by some aspects of the more conservative branches of Islam, primarily their frequent portrayal of women as seductresses whose jobs it is to cover themselves up and stay out of the way rather than it being men’s jobs to exercise a bit of self control and sublimate their sometimes sleazebaggy inclinations. In India, I was slapped by a Muslim man for not wearing a bra at a street bazaar. In a Moroccan market, I was ordered to step into the gutter so a man on his way to mosque could pass by on the sidewalk without sullying his precious shoes. I felt small and angry. And my distrust of the religion grew.

What, then, of the potentiality of a growing number of Muslims making their homes on our own soil? Honestly, you could probably replace the word “Muslims” with the word “Christians” or “Baptists” or “Catholics” and I’d answer the question the same way: I’m not sure I like it. Because I didn’t much care for the way I was treated at the Patriarchal, ruby-clad hands of the Catholic church, either. Because I don’t much care for religion in much of any form and see it as the root of so many social ills. Because our country is already headed towards religious extremism without any outside help, and I worry that an influx of more religious conservatives of any creed will only speed up that worrisome trend.

So, it’s tempting to say that my liberal tolerance only extends to those who are prepared to tolerate me as an outspoken and occasionally publicly braless female and not one inch further. It’s tempting to say, keep the Syrians out and our country will be safer. Which is really saying, Keep the Muslims out and our country will be safer.

Still, several things give me pause. One, the undeniable parallels that can be drawn between our country’s reaction to the current wave of refugees and our country’s reaction to the Jewish refugees who arrived on our shores in the throes of World War II. I think the vast majority of us Americans can agree that turning them away and thus allowing an extra 2 million Jews to die before we would get involved was a mistake. Isolationism was wrong. We were wrong. When fear takes the wheel, our collective humanity suffers, plain and simple.

But this is about more than simple dogma. All religious affiliations aside, the question of what to do about the Syrians is a question of whether social justice is better served by categorical or utilitarian worldviews. Do we turn away the many to keep out the potentially dangerous few? Or do we tilt the scales in favor of achieving the greatest good for the greatest number of folks, even if it means a terrorist or two slips in among their substantial number?

I love the neatness of the categorical worldview, but ultimately, for me, it lacks heart, compassion, tolerance and any sense of true justice. It feels wrong, even if it’s easier to justify. Even if it’s cleaner and simpler. I am, in spite of myself, a Utilitarian, right to the core.

My great-grandfather, Brahim, was a Syrian immigrant. He was also non-Muslim, like a sizeable minority of the current wave of refugees. He was a peace-loving man, like a vast majority of the current wave of refugees — Muslim, Christian or whatever else. The tragedy in Syria isn’t my tragedy. I get that. But all that separates me from it is three generations and a simple trick of fate. I got in. These folks in current question might well not. This is humbling, and it complicates my complicated feelings even more. It makes it harder for me to look at the photos of weeping, life-preserver clad refugees washing up on Greek beaches and not see some whisper of a shadow of myself, or at least the self I might have been had the cards fallen differently, had my great-grandfather shown up at Ellis Island with a lung infection or a turban on his head, or even just at an unlucky moment in the bend of history’s arc.

I once heard about this South African concept called Ubuntu. If I understand it correctly, the idea behind it is that the only way for me to be human is for you to reflect my humanity back at me. Now, let me repeat that I distrust religions of any stripe. I think they’re mostly all just dirty bids for power (this planet’s only true currency) dressed up in pious finery, and I often wish they’d all disappear from the face of this earth forever. If I could wave my magic wand and make it so tomorrow, I wouldn’t hesitate. I think the world would be a far more peaceful place. And I do not believe in God. Not one whit. But what I do believe in is human beings. My heart is as hard and fearful and torn up as the next guy’s, but if I close it completely, if I lose my ability to really see other human beings, then I risk losing sight of my own humanness, and that potentiality terrifies me.

I keep thinking of this line from an old Stanley Kunitz poem that I’ve always loved: “Oh, I have made myself a tribe out of my true affections / and my tribe is scattered!”

Yet scattered as we are, we have to band together and choose a course of action. Saying “Yes” to the Syrians poses a risk. Saying “No” to the Syrians poses a risk. We are virtually guaranteed to nurse regrets either way. No matter what we decide to do, we might well look back on the course we took, later, and wish it had played out differently. Between the idea and the act an entire kingdom lies, as they say.

But. If we’re going to say “No” over and over to desperate people out of cold and simple fear, then we might as well just give in and start building Trump’s idiotic wall right now. We might as well just seal ourselves off until we’re so totally insulated from the rest of the world that our close-knit pack suffocates and starves.

And suffocate we will: we might not like or trust each other, but ultimately we do need each other in some deep and inescapable and often burdensome sense, in different ways at different intersections and collisions of history.

This, right here, is Syria’s hour of need. And when our own hour comes, which it surely will, I can only hope that we have a friend or two left on God’s(!) green earth still ready and able to come to our aid, that we or they haven’t blasted every living ounce of goodwill still in existence on this planet to sub-atomic smithereens. Every day, I’m a little bit less optimistic. But I’m trying to be softer where my inclination is to be hard. I’m trying not to lose all hope in this tribe of mine. And I’m trying to walk in tolerance, even when the shoes feel way too small.

So, to your original question: how will I feel if the Syrian refugees get settled in Detroit or Delaware or even Portland and then whip out their AK-47s and start blasting us all to bits? Sorry is what I’d feel. Of course! But the parallel dilemma is this: how do I feel right now knowing that the people being blasted to bits are my distant brown cousins, huddled on some dark and decimated corner of the Arabian Peninsula, casting about mightily for an escape?

Sorry as fucking hell is how I feel. Because they are my ancestral tribe, the one inherited to me by blood and deep history, not simple nationality. I can’t disentangle myself from that, try as I might. And I won’t abandon them.

Respectfully Yours,


P.S.: Here’s a photo of my Great-Grandfather, Brahim, in a trailer court he once owned. After arriving in America from Syria at age 15, he changed his name to “George,” learned English, started a heavy construction business, married a nice Lebanese girl, and raised seven children. Despite the tearful promises he made to his mother upon his departure, he was never able to return home to Syria.

Syrian refugee, Syrian immigrant


4 thoughts on “Scattered Tribes: What Do We Owe The Syrian Refugees?

    • erinjbernard says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed them. I was a little nervous about posting this, because bits are unflattering (of me), and I’ll admit I thought a few times today about coming back and just deleting it … Thanks for the comment! Up it stays.

  1. Toad says:

    “So, to your original question: how will I feel if the Syrian refugees get settled in Detroit or Delaware or even Portland and then whip out their AK-47s and start blasting us all to bits? Sorry is what I’d feel. Of course! But the parallel dilemma is this: how do I feel right now knowing that the people being blasted to bits are my distant brown cousins, huddled on some dark and decimated corner of the Arabian Peninsula, casting about mightily for an escape?”

    That is fabulous question very well asked. I wish more among us would ask themselves the same

    • erinjbernard says:

      Yes, it’s a toughie, and I really do appreciate my friend pushing me to game it out a bit more … It helped me clarify some pretty tangled feelings on the subject. Thanks for your comment!

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