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Fear, Friendship and Few Answers

November 20, 2015
Syrian Refugees head into Kurdistan

Syrian Refugees head into Kurdistan

This has nothing to do with sports. So, “stick to sports” guy, this is a great time to go away…also to reevaluate your life.

I rarely if ever write about major international issues, primarily because I never feel smart enough to come up with a coherent thought about them, but also because I’m pretty sure they can’t be solved anyway. However, the attack in Paris, the resulting discussion/name calling concerning the Syrian refugee situation and even the recent campus unrest news have produced a swirl of thoughts and memories too long for Twitter or even Facebook. I don’t feel like starting a separate blog that I will eventually ignore for non-sports pieces (I only have time to ignore one blog, I guess), so here this one will sit.

It took me a while to wrap my head around a personal philosophy about the Syrian refugee issue in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, but things were clarified for me a little with a simple pre-meeting prayer this week. This is what I posted on Facebook the next morning:

The other day I said I didn’t have an answer to the Syrian refugee issue, and maybe I still don’t, but I have found my position on it.

I’m not the world’s most religious man, but yesterday at my Knights of Columbus meeting, Fr. Dan opened the meeting with a prayer that tied Christianity and courage and it finally became clear to me. The only truly Christian response is to accept anyone seeking refuge. We’re called to risk ourselves in love for our fellow man. When it comes right down to it, isn’t that how the whole thing got started?

That said, the nativity=refugees meme is still stupid.

Carry on.

But there’s more to it than just an appeal to the deeply flawed, marginal Christian in me. With every new attack, every new war, every new discussion of the Middle East and the people who live or come from there, there is a college memory that sticks with me. There is always what happened to Isa.

I have had, at best, a troubled personal view of the Middle East since I was four years old. The first thing I remember being truly afraid of was a scary man with a gun in his hand and a stocking on his head (and in a related childhood misunderstanding, gorillas). He was Palestinian and for about 16 years he and others in his line of work were all knew about Palestinians. Then I met Isa.

In the only sports related part of this story, I met Isa through soccer. My fraternity team played a team of Middle Eastern students and I was, honestly, nervous about it. As happens in soccer games sometimes, he and a guy on our team reached the ball at the same time as they both tried to swing through their kicks, Isa screamed and crumpled. I expected a fight that never came. His teammates checked on him and comforted our guy who was worried about the injury. The next day in the cafeteria I saw one of Isa’s teammates and asked about him, only to find he had torn his ACL.

The next time I saw Isa on campus I made it a point to say hello and wish him well. We talked for a while and struck up a friendship. Eventually we talked about where he was from, the things that happened there, my fear and why he left. He left for the reasons so many are leaving their homes now. He hated the violence, didn’t want to be a part of the violence and wanted to get to somewhere where he could lead a better, peaceful life. It was one of the most transformational friendships of my life.

It was among the first times a world I didn’t understand as well as I thought I did was opened to me in a new way. It replaced 16 years of fear with a face and sense of humanity that thankfully has stuck with me.

When the first Gulf War started, the student newspaper at Northern Kentucky University The Northerner  ran a section with students’ thoughts on what was happening. Isa was one of the students quoted. He said simply that he felt badly for the Iraqi people. That was it. There was nothing about America being wrong or Saddam Hussein being a great man. It was simply a man who had come from a place filled violence and suffering concerned for people who were about to be plunged into another one. The results were similar to a lot of what we see now.

There were calls on campus for him to be punished. And of course there were death threats. He holed himself up in his dorm room afraid to leave. I don’t know what happened after that. I believe he left school. I know I never saw or was able to speak to him again.

I live next to a Palestinian family now. I think the world of them. The father and his wife are great, and they have wonderful children. One day this past spring they celebrated their daughter’s wedding at their house. It was the first Muslim wedding celebration I had ever seen. It was – like other wedding celebrations – beautiful, filled with song and dancing and joy. I wonder if I would have seen any of that if a guy in college hadn’t torn his ACL.

There are a lot of difficult questions to answer in the world right now. I understand the fear associated with so many of them. I’ve known it almost all of my life. But I do hope that we manage to find our humanity beyond that fear. There are people who will see people coming to America from Syria or Iraq or anywhere else in the Middle East and see danger, and there is a certain legitimacy to that. I still see it too, but I also will always see Isa.

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7 Comments
  1. That’s a beautiful essay, Mark. Good for you for getting past initial “5 second soundbite is gospel” reaction and putting some actual thought into the world around you. By doing so, I fear you’ve dedicated more time, energy, and emotion into these problems than most people.

  2. This made me want to cry. You’re such a good writer.

  3. You’ve hit the nail on the head. We are afraid of what we don’t know. But that fear melts away once we’ve known someone from another group–whether the difference is by race, religion, or whatever. It’s hard to hate a group of people when you know someone from that group…

    • I honestly think we fear a lot of what we do know. A lot of the fear is completely valid. I just think you have to make a choice to either let that fear dominate how you view the world or not.

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