When Solidarity Only Goes So Far

This Beirut-based reporter's Syrian friends empathize with Paris's victims. But will Parisians sympathize with the growing number of refugees created by France's airstrikes?

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Only a few days after an ISIS-coordinated terrorist attacks devastated Paris, killing 129 and injuring more than 350, I was standing outside the mosque in the French hometown of one of the suspected killers, Omar Ismaël Mustafaï. I started talking to a man while waiting to interview the Imam—and when I mentioned that I was coming from Beirut, and that we had also experienced a deadly attack that week, he grimaced.

“Did the people in Beirut even feel bad for us?” he asked me.

I wanted to tell him about the country I call home, Lebanon—about the warmth of our people, who would feel for him for so much less. I wanted to tell him that, like in Paris, in Beirut we have cafés, bars, and music, and celebrate life like no other city in the world. I wanted to say that may of us have relatives in Paris, and that week had had not one, but two homes destroyed by these attacks. I wanted to invite him to come visit, and see that we are not the war den that so many media outlets portray us to be, on the rare occasion that our country does make the news. But instead, I simply said, “Of course. We know first-hand the pain you are going through.”

While well-meaning armchair activists used their Twitter platforms to complain about how the attacks in Beirut—and the ongoing violence in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Palestine—garnered a mere fraction of the media coverage that the terrorist attack in Paris received, many voices from the Middle East, and messages of sympathy and solidarity, were drowned out in the noise. As news of the attacks spread, dozens of my Syrian friends, most of whom I have met while they are living as refugees in Lebanon, were changing their profile pictures to the French flag, expressing genuine sympathy—and solidarity—with the people of Paris.

One friend, a former tour guide in Palmyra—the oasis of ancient ruins in the Syrian desert that was a UNESCO world heritage site and popular tourist destination before it was recently plundered by the Islamic State—changed his profile picture to an image of the French tricolor superimposed over the ancient city that he once called home.

“We had to flee ISIS in Tadmur,” he says, using the Arabic name for Palmyra. “Now France has a taste of how we felt.”

Just the day before, I had been having coffee near the memorial at Republique with Bashar, a Syrian refugee who sought asylum in Paris around a year and a half ago. We were talking about whether or not the recent attacks would affect refugee policy in Paris when suddenly, a panicked crowd started running for the café, toppling tables and frantically diving down the stairwell, startled by what turned out to be fireworks, set off at the wrong time.

“I felt so bad for the people of Paris,” said Bashar, as we waited inside of the restaurant’s basement kitchen to find out what was going on, and whether or not the coast was clear.

“I know how it feels because we had to face so much of this in Syria.”

Even though the Syrian passport found next to one of the attackers turned out to be a fake, the attacks—while committed by European passport holders—have had a disproportionate effect on Syrian refugees. Immediately following the attacks, France closed its borders—and while the airport is open to those whose passports allow them to enter the country freely, the land borders remain heavily policed. On Monday, riot police blockaded refugees inside of a camp in Calais, on the coast of France—claiming that the camp, which had recently been devastated by a massive fire, could be harboring extremists. In the United States, 31 governors have proclaimed that Syrian refugees will “absolutely not” be allowed to seek refuge in their state.

However, if policies remain as they are, there will be more—not fewer—refugees fleeing Syria. As the Islamic State (ISIS) expands its territory in Syria and Iraq, those who don’t wish to comply with their system of fundamentalistic Shariah law are forced to leave. Now that France is retaliating by bombing the city, Raqqa’s civilians face violence from every direction.

Last week, a significant number of boats that arrived at the shores of Lesvos—the Greek island many refugees reach by rubber dinghy, marking the first frontier of their journey and the entry point to Europe—carried refugees coming from Raqqa, also known as the de-facto capital of the Islamic State. While it is still Bashar al-Assad who creates the majority of refugees, many of these refugees were created by ISIS—and in this case, by Russian, and now French airstrikes.

With more and more borders closing, where will they go? Despite the increasingly cold weather, and the rough seas, refugees are still arriving in Greece, less deterred by the danger of the journey than the danger they are facing back home.

And with the increase in Islamophobic—and xenophobic—attacks in Europe, what will happen when they arrive? Before the attacks, right-wing groups organized rallies against the influx of refugees in Europe—now, many have warned that, “Paris will change everything.”

But will the leaders in the West that are arbitrating their fate even feel bad for them?

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