BY HARUT AKOPYAN
I had written this right after Trump won the elections. The sentiment expressed here is hardly changed but even more poignant now that Trump is in the process of blocking Muslims and Syrians from entering the United States, the likes of which we haven’t seen in a very long time.
Recently, Syrian refugees became a topic of debate on a friend’s Facebook post (I know, most things on Facebook are a topic of debate.) The initial post was essentially a critique of those Armenian-Americans who consider themselves American nationalists and make light of the fact that our then, soon to be President, Donald Trump, was making unwelcoming statements about Syrian refugees. Trump promised that “If I win, they’re going back,” referencing a little over 13,000 Syrians that the United States has taken in 2016(as of November). In retrospect, we were all skeptical about the reality of his intentions. My friend boldly reminded our fellow compatriots of their hypocrisy in light of the fact that at one point in their people’s history, Armenians were driven by the Turks in a genocidal campaign to the Syrian desert where Syrians took them in as refugees. Naturally, many of us agreed. But to my surprise, there were many still who were quick to claim that this statement is false on the grounds that they are mutually exclusive events and should not be compared. I was astonished that Armenian-Americans can exercise their politics in a wholesale manner of self-interest and self-righteousness that might sound like it’s coming from the Alt-Right movement. Although I cannot dismiss their genuine fears, this is my response to what I think is a faulty logic, not just reserved for Armenian-Americans.
There were two main arguments in variable fashion as I understood them. One was that among other things, Syria was a part of the larger Ottoman Empire and didn’t exist until 1920 under a French mandate; that Armenians were forced in the Syrian desert without permission from the Syrian people (who were mainly Arabs but also included Armenians, Assyrians, Druz, etc.) Furthermore, the argument goes that European missionaries were much more instrumental because some Syrians may have helped, but others abused the Armenian refugees by selling them into harems and the like. The second argument was that national security is threatened by not just accepting these displaced persons, but also giving them a permanent refugee status. Moreover, we Armenians should not support accepting refugees based on our own somewhat hazy history with Arabs and Syrians, but rather the allegiance to our host country, the United States (assuming that allegiance can be approached unilaterally in such a topic).
I’ll start with the first argument by asking what is it about suffering that cannot be contextualized? I use suffering because that’s what it was 100 years ago in 1915 and that’s what it is today. Surely the very simple notion of seeing swaths of people, evokes some comparison? Quantifying and qualifying the good deeds such as taking Armenian orphans in and later helping them reunite with families against being sold into harems, is not just impossible but also minimizes the records that show many Armenians actually received help. Why does the issue of the Armenian Genocide comparison to another group of suffering people, albeit under very different circumstances, provoke a rejection on taboo grounds? Realizing the ugly differences does not make some of the similarities and truth any less similar or true.
Of course, there is also that nagging issue that many Syrian-Armenians have been displaced today. We are fortunate to have a Republic of Armenia that has taken in roughly between 15,000 to 17,000 Armenians as well as some Yazidis and Assyrians and we are proud of that. Given the fact that it is a small country with less than 3 million people and resources that do not match any other neighboring state, shouldn’t the United States as well as other resourceful countries also pitch in? Wouldn’t we want all our fellow Syrian Armenians to be safe? Why must Armenia be responsible for a group of people that identify with them based on their ethnic roots alone? How are they less vulnerable and any different from any other Syrian? Furthermore, Canada has a friendlier refugee policy than the US and many of them are going there. Should Canada allow only the Armenian Syrians because they are Christian and not considered a threat to their national security? Or should we call it by any other name, as Trump has, by declaring that “religious minorities” will not be affected. Is this the draconian road we really want to take?
To the mutually exclusive arguments, I concede that I am first and foremost arguing for helping refugees based on the fact that a group of people, Syrian nationals, are suffering. Should it matter that Armenians are reminded of their history and does the personal reminder gain some leverage over that decision making? Or should any other people’s history suffice? And here, we’re back to the point, namely isn’t all human suffering in such calamity deserving of some comparison and similar attention?
If they still persist that helping Syrians without contextualizing the Armenian case is the only moral argument and counter by making the argument for the ever simplifying national security versus refugee status, then we are at a crossroads. To this second argument, I wonder if they would take that same principled approach if the shoe were in the other foot and Armenians went near and far as I mentioned earlier. Because if I may contextualize once more, many Armenians who escaped the Genocide also ended up in Ellis Island, as well as some other countries.
In the comment section of his post, my friend pointed out that although he understands that a careless “open borders all the time” policy is not pragmatic, he asked if there was no middle ground that could be found? The “security vs. refugee status” cohorts offered no solution. The answer was that the best interest of our host country, the US, is the only thing we should be interested in and our history should not play a factor in that decision making. To that, I’d say that it’s simply inhumane to ignore the very tangible human lives at stake simply because they were born “over there” and not “over here.” In 1939, The United States rejected a ship called the “St. Louis” of just under 1000 Jewish passengers headed to the US via Cuba, forcing them to go back because of a fear of Nazi spies slipping through. Three months before that, Congress denied a bill that would have allowed another 20,000 Jewish children from Germany. The tide was turning against accepting refugees and both the Cuban government and FDR didn’t respond to “St. Louis’s” pleas for help. A few years later, they placed our own Japanese-American citizens in internment camps for fear of national security and it is one of the more uglier times in our history. When Trump talks of Muslim registries, he’s baiting on the same fears. However, this country is also the same country that had the Displaced Persons Act after World War 2, allowing many refugees all over Europe to come through, even against red-baiting and the argument that communists might slip through.
A little over 13,000 Syrians is an iota of a problem (regarding the security vs. refugee status argument) and to call for a wholesale refusal of such status is something I’d have a hard time living with. Now then if the argument evolves into “if we give status, how and where do we stop?” I’d say I don’t know. I’d say there are already vetting practices in place that should be trusted and still no easy decisions when it comes to who you let in your country and who you don’t during such a screening process. Given there are approximately 13,000 people in limbo right now however, it would be a political and moral disaster to force them to go back. Any notion of comparing it to a tragic “but what if terrorists…” scenario and calling it an equal disaster if you let them stay would be disingenuous at best.