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Syrian Lessons Close To Home, From Paris To Tennessee

A Garrigan boy playing soccer with a Syrian refugee in Paris' Parc Sainte-Perrine
A Garrigan boy playing soccer with a Syrian refugee in Paris' Parc Sainte-Perrine
Liz Garrigan*

PARIS — Our usual spot at Parc Sainte-Périne to plop our blanket and sports equipment for a few hours of recreational escape was already taken when we arrived on Saturday. A group of about 10 young men were sprawled out on the patch, enjoying the sunshine and talking among themselves — in Arabic, I noticed. That must have been why I made a point to put some distance between us, settling on a park bench rather than the green space beside them.

I know now that I was acting on some kind of automatic bias. The November attacks in Paris, where 130 people were massacred, are still pretty raw for those of us who live here. And though all of the murderers and accomplices have been identified as European citizens, they were, let's face it, radicalized Muslims with Arabic names.

As my boys, ages 7 and 8, took their soccer ball and began to play, about three of the guys, who looked to be in their early twenties, joined them — kicking back and forth, teaching their young protégés some fancy moves, high-fiving and tousling their hair along the way. My little guys were all smiles, and would wind up playing with their new friends for nearly three hours.

At one point, I joined the scrum, managing a long kick that made the young men's eyes wide with delight and surprise. (Once a jock, always a jock, middle age be damned.) We exchanged friendly greetings, and from up close it was clear that they were not only fun for my boys, but kind and utterly charming.

I also noticed that their French, though probably better than mine, was not perfect, and eventually we asked where they were from. Over the past year, each one of them had arrived in Paris from Syria. The "European refugee crisis' — and the Syrian civil war itself — which I read about every day had arrived in my neighborhood park.

The men had escaped their own government's barrel bombing and chemical weapons, dodged sniper fire from different rebel groups, and the barbaric oppression of the ISIS terror group — a three-sided inferno of misery — only to arrive after an inhumane journey onto a continent where xenophobic-fueled political movements are demonizing them.

But there I stood, part of the problem, at least for those few moments when I'd isolated my family from what I initially took to be a cluster of humanity best avoided. The lesson, of course, is that instead of maintaining a blind allegiance to our worst instincts, we should work to resist them — and be willing to admit when we've succumbed to them.

Back home

Back in my home state of Tennessee, there are scant signs of any such self-reflection. The state Senate recently approved "one of the most extreme anti-refugee" legislative efforts in the entire country, as one immigrant advocate put it. It demands that the state sue the president and federal government to stop Syrian refugees from resettling in Tennessee.

Though the legislation has no likelihood of changing anything, it illustrates a dangerous and apparently widespread sentiment. For context, the Tennessee Senate is led by a man who believes that freedom of religion doesn't necessarily apply to the "cult" of Islam. After refusing federal health care dollars that would cover 200,000 of the state's sickest and most vulnerable citizens, his flock recently named an official state rifle: the Barrett .50 caliber, "which is so powerful it can blast commercial airliners out of the sky," my friend and political writer Jeff Woods notes.

But if the success of Donald Trump's presidential primary candidacy tells us anything, it's that feckless Tennessee lawmakers are hardly swimming against the prevailing political currents. Fear of the "other," and more specifically immigrants and Muslims, has risen to the point where scare tactics are used to describe a desperate flock of people fleeing war in Syria.

In Europe, the tide against refugees began to turn in earnest not so much after the Paris attacks as after a series of assaults against women in Cologne, Germany, on New Year's Eve. Rhetoric about immigrants that was considered too coarse one day became utterly acceptable the next.

Law and order had completely broken down in pockets of a progressive country like Germany, exposing hundreds of young women to terrifying experiences at the hands of non-German immigrants who quite clearly had no regard for our accepted standards of decency and respect. People were angry, and the recent flood of refugees into Europe was to blame. I was among the angry masses.

But again, uninformed indignation gets us nowhere. What we have learned since those crimes were reported should inform our rhetoric. Not a single refugee, Syrian or otherwise, was among the Paris attackers — and only three of the 58 men arrested in Cologne were from Syria or Iraq. Most of the offenders were economic migrants from North African countries such as Algeria and Morocco, whose circumstances are entirely different from those of the Syrians.

Long ways away

Likewise in December, the Islamic terror attack in San Bernardino, California, provided fodder for Americans looking to block Syrian war refugees. But here too, the killers — an American of Pakistani origin and his Saudi Arabian wife — had nothing to do with Syria.

The world is a complicated place, and migration makes it even more so. There are economic migrants and there are desperate people fleeing death. Surely we can make a distinction between the two.

But somehow logic has evaded not just Tennessee and a sizeable percentage of the American Republican electorate — who simply want to keep all Muslims out, no matter where they're from — but much of Europe too. War refugees from Syria, people who have left everything behind and risked their lives to give their children a life away from bloodshed and starvation, are being portrayed as somehow a threat. It's plainly wrong, an exercise in willful ignorance that has become frighteningly mainstream.

Sometimes we must be reminded to check our bigotry at the door — and check the facts too. Last Saturday, on a sun-dappled soccer pitch in Paris, I learned this important lesson anew. It was one first taught to me by my parents, both natives of Tennessee.

Liz Garrigan is senior editor at Worldcrunch, and was formerly editor of the Nashville Scene. She's lived in Paris for five years.

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