“We want the world to know we are human, and that if they give us some time we will adjust and contribute…” ~ Muhammad, refugee
Some immigrant groups do not do so well, and yet others seem to thrive the more they are dispersed.
Jews are the classic case of a minority that seem to succeed wherever they go. They thrive intellectually and financially, and they have been doing so for millennia, but the Lebanese and Greeks have also prospered most everywhere they have gone, as have the Iranians.
If you are doubtful, think about the ones you actually know and not the media caricatures. Muslims have been unusually successful in the United States more generally, enjoying some of the highest levels of education and wealth and the lowest levels of crime among any demographic group in the country. But this may have more to do with immigration policies that let in skilled workers and grad students and less to do with their respective cultures.
It is quite common for a people to succeed everywhere except their homeland. Perhaps it is because the traditionalist family system does a great job of fostering hard work and dedication, while simultaneously producing corruption in the state. It is a common tale of hardworking immigrants leaving their troubled homeland for the better governed America, where they prosper and thrive amid native layabouts. But it is often just the smartest and most dedicated who find the energy to leave in search of opportunity.
Syria sits smack dab in the middle of some of the most successful diaspora nations in the world. It is an empty center that has long been fought over by empires—and for just this reason, it is unusually diverse, with countless sects and ethnic groups who have found a home as their empires departed.
The diversity tends to be ignored in the West, but it is one of the reasons it has been so hard for the region to forge inclusive and democratic states. It is tough to foster a sense of shared citizenship when everyone feels themselves part of some distinctive religious or ethnic minority.
Some people leave their countries in desperation, and some leave in search of opportunity. But sometimes the people leaving in desperation are the wealthiest and most educated, because it is only the elites who can find a way out. And this is what happened in Syria, where the costs of emigration were so high that the bulk of the population has been left to languish in cities its own government has lain waste.
But some Syrian refugees are just young and gutsy. For example, take my friend Muhammad, from a small camp on one of the Greek islands. He is a Syrian look-alike of Joey from the TV show Friends, which a mutual friend of ours from Syria claims to have watched in its entirety a whopping seven times. You can just imagine him watching it on his phone, in a small room in the camp, longing for a normal life of freedom. All of this makes them seem familiar, but there is nothing normal about what they have suffered.
After his city was obliterated by the Assad regime, Muhammad left alone for Libya at the age of 17 to work as a painter. Since that time, all of his childhood friends have been killed, fighting in rival militias into which some joined and others were conscripted. He has lived in Jordan and Turkey, where—with other refugees—he was worked like a slave, and in Greece, where he now waits in the camps to be settled in some European country that remains yet unknown.
His worldly wisdom and social intelligence are of a different order from the college stoners more typical of my American hometown. He will enter college with more experience of war and politics than his professors of political science and more experience of trauma than his sociology professors. And he will come armed with inner resources of which few in the West can even dream.
“We want the world to know we are human, and that if they give us some time, we will adjust and contribute,” he says to my girlfriend in Arabic.
Perhaps it will take a generation, but my own intuition is that small communities of Syrians scattered across a wide array of countries in Europe and the Middle East might not just contribute, but they’ll help lead the world in building a better global civilization.
Integrating them into our countries may not be easy. Multiculturalism challenges us to listen more closely to differences and remain flexible in our thinking. And when it all blows up in less stable states, the consequences can be devastating. Thus, it is of little wonder that more conservative Americans and Europeans are uncomfortable with taking on the challenge. But many of them are also descendants of immigrants, and many of the refugees are dying to live and will enrich our experience and teach us something of what it means to be human.
Admitting discomfort is one thing, but fostering prejudice and unrealistic stereotypes is quite another. The Syrians we met and befriended across the Middle East were almost universally bright-eyed and friendly—warm and welcoming. They were more generous than our friends at home and more respectful of our religious differences than most Christians. We did not meet any supporters of ISIS, or any religious extremists—no one who expressed hatred toward their enemies and not a single person who, when given the chance, did not speak of longing to live in peace.
Author: Theo Horesh
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina