Monthly Archives: November 2015

We are One Human Family or We are Nothing

Back when I was in the early years of college I did an internship for social justice in Los Angeles. I had chosen to live in a safe house in east LA that provided aid and assistance to impoverished families. One morning I came down to find two sisters from the Missionaries of Charity sitting at the table with our house administrators.  They had a similar home just down the street from us and they were well known for opening it as a sanctuary for refugees.  I and the other interns were all asked to make an important decision that day.

Guatemala women mourn the dead of their communities, decimated by crime and right wing militia violence. Photo by Brooke Anderson.A family of refugees from Central America were headed to LA and needed housing, and the sisters home was already filled to capacity. Our house admins agreed to do this, but we would be permitted to go to another program, without judgement, if we were not comfortable with this decision. At the time providing sanctuary for people from certain nations in Central America was controversial, risky and technically illegal as they had not been granted refugee status. This was because the US was supporting, training and funding the right wing militias that terrorized the general population in their homelands, causing them to flee for their lives. We knew what was at stake. We understood we needed to be careful about whom we told. And we were very nervous, but we committed to it anyway.

That evening we held a reception for the family we had taken in. They were of Mayan ancestry and sat on a couch in the middle of the room, dressed in traditional clothing, grinning ear to ear at us quietly, as they gratefully ate the sandwiches we offered them.  Later, I learned that the risk I had taken paled in comparison to theirs.  We sat silently as we listened to the horrors they had witnessed and the perilous journey they had undertaken to find a better life for their children.  I am forever grateful for that experience because I was able to get to know some of the most gracious and loving people I have ever encountered.
An anti-refugee protester in New York City in September. Albin Lohr-Jones, Pacific Press, LightRocket via Getty Images.

A woman holds an anti-refugee sign at a rally in Scotland. Photo source, Vice.This is one of the reasons why the repugnant things being said about refugees, whether they are from Central America or Africa or the Middle-East, cuts me to the core.  The xenophobic vitriol is at fever pitch, just as it was back then.  This is because the refugee is an easy target for the powerful.  Unlike the faceless ghosts from one of their mass graves, they are living, breathing reminders of the crimes they committed in far flung places that now haunt them in their own backyard. They must, if they are to continue their murderous plunder, expunge them from the public record of decency through demonization and fear mongering.

In the years since my internship, I have had the opportunity to work with many refugees, most of which were from America’s many imperialistic wars or support of despotic, client regimes around the world, many from Iraq and Syria, and many Muslims.  Each one that I met told me similar stories of their plight and expressed deep gratitude for being accepted into safety.  They had lives in the homes they were forced to flee from.  They had no desire to leave them.  They all had family members, friends and belongings that are now lost forever.  But they all held out hope for a better life.

Refugees attempt to pass through Hungary. Photo source, The Telegraph.

In this June 13, 2012, file photo, a Rohingya Muslim man who fled Myanmar to Bangladesh to escape religious violence, cries as he pleads from a boat after he and others were intercepted by Bangladeshi border authorities in Taknaf, Bangladesh. Two recent shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea believed to have taken the lives of as many as 1,300 asylum seekers and migrants has highlighted the escalating flow of people fleeing persecution, war and economic difficulties in their homelands. (AP Photo/Anurup Titu, File)

As the chaos from climate change accelerates and ecosystems degrade, Western leaders will undoubtedly become more nervous, reactionary and draconian.  And it is only matter of time before the comfortable of the West may be in similar straights as refugees today.  One need only look at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for evidence of that.  Given what we are seeing we can expect the powerful to respond to us in the same way as they are to them, and this is why our solidarity with them is so urgent.  This is not a value that one commits to when things are easy or bright.  This is the defining measure of our shared humanity that is meaningless unless one is willing to take great risk to defend it.  In the end it reveals the truth that there is no “other.”  We are one human family, or we are nothing.


Kenn Orphan 2015

The Seeds of Empathy

In the days following the horrific attacks in Paris, which claimed the lives of over 100 civilians and injured hundreds more, I returned to the United States from Europe after a long visit with family and friends. I was not in Paris this time, but I did spend time in France.  I, like so many others, have a connection with the ‘City of Light’ so this tragedy struck me in a visceral way. Whenever something like this happens there is shock accompanied by despair. But I am reminded that despite how abhorrent this incident was, there is a big world outside Western borders that suffers this each and every day and on a much larger scale. And its misery is mostly due to our willful ignorance and our leaders penchant for division, aggression and plunder.

PARIS, FRANCE - NOVEMBER 14: Mourners gather in front of the Petit Cambodge and Le Carillon restaurants on November 14, 2015 in Paris, France. At least 120 people have been killed and over 200 injured, 80 of which seriously, following a series of terrorist attacks in the French capital. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

To the powerful of the world irony is something reserved for satirists. It is easily dismissed. Hypocrisy is not in their vocabulary either. In response to the attacks French President Francois Hollande said “France is at war.” This statement is astonishing given the country’s long history of colonialism and recent events in its foreign policy.

One might ask Mr. Hollande what the assault on Libya that left thousands dead and demolished one of the richest nations in Africa was if it was not war? Or the continued military aid to Saudi Arabia and Israel which have mercilessly slaughtered thousands in Yemen and Gaza in the last two years alone? Or France and NATO’s relentless bombing of Syria over the past few years which has done nothing but create unimaginable suffering in what once was a jewel in the Middle-East’s crown?

Syria before and after the war. Source News Items.

Unsurprisingly, in the United States political opportunists have used the tragedy in Paris to ramp up anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-Syrian refugee rhetoric. Incredulously, these are the same ones who drone on endlessly each year about the non-existent “war on Christmas” on a holiday which commemorates a Middle-Eastern family seeking refuge from terror over 2000 years ago. But they cannot be bothered by such irony either, nor can they take any responsibility for a legacy of American imperialistic plunder that has fostered constant misery for millions of people daily around the world. By all accounts, crippling sanctions and the invasion of Iraq, a war based upon lies, spawned the creation of ISIS. But now it is being talked about as if it sprang out of nowhere.

Fear mongering and demonization of Syrian refugees in the media. Source Fox News.The propaganda of politicians and the mainstream media, which revel in beating the drums of nationalistic xenophobia, is ubiquitous these days. And their selective grief and outrage encourages a largely misinformed public to ignore the long list of Western backed atrocities that have caused the refugee crisis to begin with. For instance, just weeks ago the US military bombed a Doctors Without Borders run hospital in Afghanistan, burning patients to death in their beds and incinerating doctors and staff alike. But critical coverage of this was scant in the mainstream press. The same applies to grief. On the same day as the attacks in Paris suicide bombers killed scores in Beirut, but media coverage of this tragedy was dwarfed by the enormous attention that has been paid to Paris.

A relative of Samer Huhu, who was killed in a twin bombing attack in Beirut, waves his portrait. Source Associated Press.For the rest of us there is a choice. We can ignore the enormous costs of imperialism and neoliberal capitalism and believe the lies of the war profiteers; or we can choose a path toward shared humanity that sees no boundaries of worthiness when it comes to suffering. We can also oppose the political and economic order that is rapidly destroying fragile ecosystems and that perpetuates alienation and misery in most of the world.

Solidarity with those suffering in Paris is to be commended; and there is no shame in expressing it publicly. But if we do not come to realize soon that we must seed the fields of empathy for all who suffer needlessly on this ever smaller and beleaguered planet, I fear we will doom ourselves and our children to a world of perpetual savagery or even, possibly, end civilization itself once and for all.

Kenn Orphan 2015