The terror and loathing directed at Syrian refugees strikes me hard in part because I grew up among so many families of Middle Eastern descent.
Perhaps because my home of Lake Charles, La., was a port city, it was full of immigrants — particularly Italian, Syrian and Lebanese. They were thick in the wards down near the railroad tracks, where my dad grew up. They were grocers, clothiers, restaurateurs, bakers, tavern keepers, friends. They were, by the way, Christians, those of Arab descent typically Episcopalian. There’s a Syria Road in Lake Charles. Also, in my youth, a Cedars of Lebanon clubhouse was a busy place. Family histories say the leaders of the families I knew fled poverty and political oppression. We knew our friends variously as Syrians and Lebanese (never quite sure which); ate the kibbe their mothers still made, and, yes, regrettably, subjected them to demeaning jokes about their ancestry.
One swarthy descendant of such immigrants — his rich black beard in youthful days made the very picture of the sorts of people who strike fear in us now — was in my wedding. His father had been a childhood friend of my father at Second Ward School. We laughed when I told him about the first time I met his father, supervising a track meet in the still-segregated days of Louisiana elementary schools. What, I wondered, was a black man doing running the white kids’ track meet? I was in the fifth grade. All I knew was that he was blacker by far than the French-speaking black man who mowed our yard. But the black man was actually white, and the white man was actually black. Such were the intricacies of “race” in the melting pot of Southwest Louisiana. You needed a scorecard.
I was happy to see the TV station in my hometown interview a local couple of Syrian descent about current events. He’s a long-time mayor of Oakdale, just 60 miles up the road from Lake Charles. I’ve bought clothes in his family’s clothing store.
“We’ve been in Oakdale for all of our lives,” said Bobby Abrusley, who served Oakdale as mayor for 16 years.
“My grandfather and grandmother came here; they were immigrants, as well as Nancy’s grandparents,” said Abrusley.
Bobby and Nancy have family that immigrated from Syria in the early 1900s. The couple said what’s happening on the other side of the world is heartbreaking.
“All of these people are homeless, been thrown out of their homes, bombed out of their homes, and have nowhere to go,” said Nancy Karam Abrusley, who said she understands the fear.
“I’m as scared of terrorists as everybody is,” said Nancy.
She said even though you might be scared, you can’t assume all Syrians are connected to ISIS.
Thanks for that, KPLC-TV. Security concerns are real. Care must be taken. But the odds are that that those fleeing are more likely to yearn for the same promise America holds for those here now.
CC: Asa Hutchinson, Mike Huckabee, Tom Cotton, Jason Rapert, etc.
UPDATE: Speaking of refugees, Gary Mueller, the Methodist bishop in Little Rock, has responded to Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s opposition to Syrian refugees in Arkansas. You can read it all here. Snippet:
I affirm the need for heightened security in the face of global terrorism, including appropriate military action against ISIS. However, I also strongly believe there is a need for heightened compassion towards Syrian refugees who are suffering at the hands of ISIS in ways we can only begin to comprehend.
Governor Hutchinson has weighty responsibilities for the welfare of all Arkansans and I pray for him as he fulfills his difficult role. Certainly, we cannot allow an unregulated flow of refugees into our state. But it solves nothing to categorically exclude a group of people whose lives have been torn apart, as the governor has indicated he would like to do concerning Syrian refugees.
Which reminds me: I saw a response from a local Republican on Twitter to a news story that said religious leaders in Arkansas had gathered in support of compassion for the refugee. Sneered the Republican words to the effect of: “All I saw were some Methodists.” Like, that’s not a real religion that knows there are asterisks on that Brother’s Keeper passage.
AND ALSO: France has renewed its vow to take 30,000 Syrian refugees. If I were a Republican governor in the U.S. I think I’d feel a little sheepish.