Our Selective Sympathy

An article I wrote that was published on backofthebook.ca

Check their site out for great writing, and a whole lot of Canadian content. 

It is a powerful thing to see the destroyed homes of the Beacon Hill neighborhood in Fort McMurray — husks of buildings that once contained a family, their possessions, their memories, their keepsakes, their records, and their favourite throw pillows; everything minor and major, wiped out by an implacable force.

The destruction of whole neighborhoods, and the images of smoking cinders left behind, are a haunting reminder of how fragile the things we build as human beings are.

The people of Fort McMurray were allowed back into the city beginning June 1st. Most who return face a harrowing trial to rebuild their lives. Even if their homes are intact, the city itself is not exactly in any kind of normal running order; residents are asked to bring at least two weeks of supplies with them. So it’s less “Welcome home!” and more “Welcome to survivalist camping in the ruins of what used to be your entire life and community.”

And then there are those who cannot return, either because they have nothing left to go back to, or don’t yet have the mental strength to face what remains. They are still scattered throughout the province and elsewhere, in the shelters they have found among friends, relatives, and sympathetic strangers.

Their plight, and the images of their vacant, devastated city, remind me of another group of refugees who have dominated the global headlines recently – the ones fleeing Syria in the aftermath of a dick-measuring contest between world powers, a contest that has been conducted with seemingly no regard for human life.

Some quotes that have stuck with me lately:

“We lost everything, we only have what we have on our backs.”

“In Arabic we say that the worst situations actually make you smile … so I’m smiling.”

“People don’t understand how hard it is to explain to a two-year-old that they can’t play with their dolls, because they don’t exist anymore.”

“We escaped death.”

These quotes come from both the Fort Mac and the Syrian refugees. It’s hard to tell which are which; the sense of loss and devastation resonating through them is the same. But while the experiences of the two groups of refugees have been similar, our responses to them as a country have been anything but.

Those who streamed south from Fort McMurray were in many cases taken in, supported, and cared for by their fellow citizens. Homes were opened to those who had nothing, to use showers, eat, and sleep while they awaited news of their houses, and of loved ones lost in the log-jammed traffic convoy down Highway 63. The sympathy these refugees from the wildfire encountered has been consistently high from the word go, as also evidenced by the donations and the social media concern showered on them from all parts of the country.

Our sympathy towards the Syrian refugees, however, has been a lot more erratic. For every person who appeals for aid and shelter for those who have lost everything, there is an ignorant racist knucklehead who believes that your country of origin, or religious background, or the proximity of your country to terror cells, determines whether or not you deserve the most basic level of human compassion.

My intention here isn’t to compare the tragedy of Fort McMurray with the tragedy that is the war in Syria. For one thing, the loss of life in the Syrian war renders such a comparison moot; for another, it’s not fair to underestimate the impact of the fire on a tightly-knit, self-reliant northern city. Playing “Who’s suffered more?” would be grossly sadistic.

But at least a lot of the people who fled Fort McMurray can go back. It’s not clear if the 27,580 Syrian refugees who have been taken in by Canada will ever be able to return to their native country. And while those who lost everything in Fort Mac have a long journey of pain and Syrian refugee familymisery ahead of them (not to mention insurance battles), they won’t at the same time have to mourn the loss of many of their closest friends and loved ones.

Our sympathy should not be selective. Canadians have shown that they are capable of boundless humanity; Red Cross donations to the Fort McMurray relief effort have reached $125 million. Now we need to show that our humanity extends to those who have arrived here from the disaster overseas, that it doesn’t come with strings attached.

Ignorance, fear, and racism, even of the virulent kind that seems to have run rampant in the aftermath of Syrian refugee settlement, can be overcome. We’ve witnessed how good-hearted, as a country, we can be; now all we have to do is keep the goodwill flowing. As a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian, a refugee is a refugee.

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