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It's Our Duty To Help Refugees, Even If We Are Afraid

12/03/2015 05:54 EST | Updated 12/03/2016 05:12 EST
Spencer Platt via Getty Images
MITILINI, GREECE - OCTOBER 23: A child waits with her father at the migrant processing center at the increasingly overwhelmed Moria camp on the island of Lesbos on October 23, 2015 in Mytilene, Greece. Dozens of rafts and boats are still making the journey daily as thousands flee conflict in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other countries. More than 500,000 migrants have entered Europe so far this year. Of that number four-fifths of have paid to be smuggled by sea to Greece from Turkey, the main transit route into the EU. Nearly all of those entering Greece on a boat from Turkey are from the war zones of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

"Whosoever saves a single life, saves an entire universe" (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5)

As Canada welcomes its first wave of Syrian refugees this week, part of a plan to settle 25,000 by February 2016, there are those who are concerned that the whole operation isn't such a good thing.

I'm the founder of the Westside Refugee Response, a group working to sponsor a family of refugees to come to Canada, and of Humans of Resource, an initiative to help new Canadians find job-related resources -- and as such have found myself having some interesting conversations lately with people who think we shouldn't be taking them in -- particularly the Muslim ones.

Those, I've been told, we should be pressuring neighbouring Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia* to take. I've also had conversations in the wake of the Paris attacks with people who (surprisingly) don't understand that the attackers are among the people the refugees are running from, that they're not one and the same. And I've learned through word of mouth that one of my friends didn't attend our group fundraiser because "she's not a fan of Muslims."

I've been angered, flummoxed, and frustrated. But at the end of the day, I'm still going to be friends with all of these people. This isn't the case for some my peers. I've witnessed the dissolution of Facebook friendships -- Gen X's equivalent of blacklisting, I suppose -- over the issue. Someone will proudly make an announcement that they've just cut loose another "racist" or "xenophobe," which is invariably followed by a flurry of congratulatory and sympathetic comments.

It's all very dramatic, and I think also very counterproductive. Because, look, come on, these people are just scared. You might not approve of or understand the reason for their fear, but they're afraid. They need reassurance, not recrimination. I'm scared too. Maybe not for the same reasons, but I am afraid.

That doesn't, however, mean it is not my and my husband's duty to help. And I think it is yours too.

There is a Yad Vashem medal sitting in my dining room. It was awarded posthumously to my husband's Protestant grandfather, Henk Jager, who sheltered dozens of Jewish children in his house in a rural Dutch village during WWII.

Do you think he wasn't afraid?

A neighbouring family was caught doing the same thing, so the Nazis shot them and laid their bodies by the road as a warning. Henk, who had a wife and two sons to think about, had to walk by them every day.

Of course he was afraid. But he did the right thing anyway.

Some of my fears are probably different from Henk's. One, I imagine, is quite similar -- that by helping these people I will be leading those they are fleeing right to us.

But most of those are small, imaginary fears, and what refugees from Syria are fleeing are big, real fears.

I'm also scared that we will somehow fail the people we sponsor, or that they will be ungrateful and not very nice. I suppose I'm slightly concerned that they will actually be bad people. And I'll admit I'm a little scared (possibly irrationally) of the remotely possible Fundamental Islamification of Canada. I feel, incidentally, that I should be allowed to express these fears without being called a racist or xenophobe.

But most of those are small, imaginary fears, and what refugees from Syria are fleeing are big, real fears. What Henk did he did at great risk to himself and his family. We're actually at no immediate risk as far as I know. This is the least we can do.

To those who are afraid of Muslims, who feel we should pressure Saudi Arabia to take them in, I don't know whether you've given enough thought to that idea. I don't believe in refusing someone help based on their religion, and I wouldn't send anyone to live in a place that doesn't allow women to drive, that imprisons and lashes bloggers, and that sentences people to death for poetry if it wasn't their first choice. But even if I didn't hold these opinions for humanitarian reasons, I would still think it was bad planning to send moderate people to a nation where "calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based" is considered a "terrorist crime" -- or, as far as I understand it, where they may have to become fundamentalists in order to survive. I think that's just a bad idea. If you believe we are at war with fear and oppression, I have to believe that kindness and inclusion are two of our greatest weapons.

And to those who are afraid that terrorists will get in with the refugees, despite Justin Trudeau's assurance that they will all be properly screened, you know what? I think you might be right. But I think they'll get in anyway. Locked doors only keep honest people out, and I want to let the honest people in.

At the end of the day, do you want to know what I'm most afraid of?

I'm most afraid of the images of suffering that appear when I close my eyes, and what will happen to my soul if I turn away without helping. How can you look at those babies and say "No. Let's not help?" Because that's what you are saying, no matter how cagily you try to word it, unless you are saying "Yes. Let's help. What can I do?"

I promise you that the vast majority of these people just want live. They want to wake up, rush through breakfast, work too hard, pick the kids up, have dinner, and collapse into bed without being afraid that their house will be blown up overnight.

We can help them do that. Even if we're afraid.

*Reports are conflicting on whether Saudi Arabia has actually taken in refugees.

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Image: Mstyslav Chernov, Wikimedia Commons

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