Dear Hudson Valley, Your Support of Ukraine Confuses Me
I stand with Ukraine and its people and am completely confused why everyone is agreeing with me.
The Ukrainian people are in need of any support we can give them, and the Hudson Valley appears to be united in that effort. Residents are posting inspiring messages on social media, soliciting donations for displaced families, putting sunflowers in their windows as a sign of unity and there is a strong effort to welcome Ukrainian refugees into the community.
Even politicians appear to have put partisanship aside to stand with Ukraine.
In 2016 Syria was in the middle of a similar humanitarian crisis. A violent civil war was being waged with an oppressive government using violence and intimidation to stop anyone from speaking out. By the end of the year, 12 million Syrians were forcibly displaced from their homes, businesses and families. Outraged by the horrors that its people were enduring, we welcomed Church World Service on our show to talk about their resettlement effort for Syrian refugees.
I assumed that an effort to welcome displaced Syrians to the Hudson Valley would be something everyone would get behind. I was terribly wrong.
Our interview solicited a flood of angry responses from listeners who didn't want anyone from Syria moving to the Hudson Valley. Horrific Facebook comments still visible from that week show just how angry people were about the idea of helping these people who lost everything.
A common response to the interview came from Tanya Di who wrote, "These adults can't be told apart from good or bad and terrorists are sick enough to strap bombs to babies ... They all gotta go!!!"
Other racist responses compared the organization relocating the refugees to an "ISIS recruiting office" and spread false rumors about secret terrorists posing as refugees planning to infiltrate the area. Not-so-blatant racism also came in the form of discussions about our "own people" having to deal with poverty and homelessness, so why should we help them?
Surprised by the ugly reaction, we shared the story of Sana Mustafa, a young woman living in Dutchess County who fled Syria after her father was taken by the government for speaking out against Bashar al-Assad. Her mother and sisters were displaced to Turkey while she found herself lucky enough to be taken in by Bard College. The story, titled "Syrian Living in Dutchess Will Change Your Mind About Refugees" did (spoiler alert) nothing to change anyone's mind.
Syrian Living in Dutchess Will Change Your Mind About Refugees
Angry residents showed up to a packed meeting in the City of Poughkeepsie to protest the resettlement effort, online petitions were posted from groups such as "Citizens Against Refugee Resettlement in Poughkeepsie NY" and everyone completely lost their minds.
I tried again to share facts about the program, going into embarrassing detail about how the refugees were fully vetted and screened, were not unskilled workers looking to live off of the system and most certainly were not "secret terrorists." Again, these facts fell on deaf ears and soon after Donald Trump was elected president, CWS closed up shop and left.
Today pretty much all Hudson Valley residents and politicians on both sides of the aisle are happily cheering on Ukraine and its people. That's a great thing, but it makes you wonder why. Why are the Ukrainian people somehow more deserving of our help than Syrians? Those fighting Russia's oppressive regime are called freedom fighters, so why were Syrians fighting against its oppressive government called terrorists? Why do images of Ukrainians throwing Molotov cocktails at tanks depicted as heroes while Syrians doing the same thing elicited a very different emotional response?
These are tough questions with ugly answers, but if we can all be honest with ourselves and reflect on why we view two groups of oppressed people very differently, it may help us all become better human beings.