I lived about one quarter of my life as a refugee–six years in Serbia and four years in Canada. That experience gave me a special “insider” perspective on racism that I would like to share here. The reason I would like to share my perspective is to point to the idea that sometimes we think we are helping refugees, but we are in fact not helping at all. We might even be helping those who want to harm refugees, and we may be dancing to the racists’ tune.
Those unfortunate situations when we are dancing to the racists’ tune may occur when news articles are geared toward “dispelling the negative image of refugees.” For example, a recent article titled “What Are Syrian Refugees Like? This Canadian Found Out” talks about a Syrian who helped his Canadian neighbours during the recent ice storm.
Although it seems like a good idea to point out the positive deeds of refugees, this article is sending a racist message. First, it implies that it was important to specifically point out that the good-doer was a refugee, as if we wouldn’t expect refugees to help their neighbours. But, why wouldn’t a refugee help? The article is trying to say to those who don’t like refugees: “See, refugees are good people.” By doing that, it is implying that it is necessary to persuade others that refugees are capable of being good, as if refugees are somehow different from the rest of us and we need to verify their humanity.
Many believe that stories like this are needed since there is an opinion shared by some that refugees will not contribute to their new homes and societies. But, the thing is–most of us Canadians won’t contribute to our neighbourhoods in any special way, and that’s considered OK. I don’t know the names of most of my neighbours, but no one is questioning my decency because of that. We don’t have to contribute to our neighbourhoods in any special way to be considered decent people. It is taken as default that we are good people until we do something bad. But, articles like the one I linked above imply that refugees need to show extra effort just to get to the level where the rest of us get by default.
We still might try to defend the article’s narrative by saying say that stories like these are meant to reinforce the idea that suspicion of refugees is unwarranted. But, if we take this claim seriously, we are insulting the intelligence of our fellow Canadians. I am confident that the average Canadian does not need anyone to tell him that refugees are human just like the rest of us. Just like within any group of people, there are good people among refugees, but there are also some nasty ones. Neither the good ones nor the bad ones represent the whole group. If I am wrong in this assumption about the ability of our fellow Canadians to recognize the humanity of other people, then we should be afraid of our fellow Canadians, not the refugees. The most dangerous people are those whose belief in other people’s humanity depends on anecdotal evidence and public opinion.
If you have lived as a refugee anywhere, you know that no amount of effort to show that you are as good of a human as anyone else will ever be enough for those who are racist. Therefore, don’t. Don’t play to the racist’s tune and let them manipulate you into trying to prove your humanity. Those who don’t have faith in your humanity to begin with will not be persuaded by any amount of evidence.