I will not be terrorized. I will not remain silent. I will not be apathetic. I will pray for our world. And I hope you will join me to make this “I" a "we."
“Did you see ISIS fighters?” “How many of the refugees are terrorists?” “Is this all a cover for jihadis to infiltrate Europe?” I have been asked various permutations of these questions time and time again, since traveling to Lesvos to work with newly arrived Syrian, Afghan, and Iraqi refugees in October and November, an island to which I will return next week.
Now, following the horrific terror attacks in Paris, I have received countless additional questions about this complex global crisis and realization of people’s worst fears about ISIS and the waves of refugees. Friday night's six distinct strikes were an example of clear coordination and effective organization, planned abroad and executed in France, as President Hollande said. ISIS swiftly claimed responsibility for the 132 deaths and 352 injured, nearly 100 still in critical condition, upholding its threat to send fighters to European cities, smuggled among the masses of refugees. I winced when news broke that one of the suicide bombers outside the stadium had a Syrian passport, whether stolen or legitimate. This man was processed as a refugee who entered through Leros, Greece by boat and then traveled the Balkan corridor of Serbia and Croatia in October. As many refugees do actually lose documents on the journey, often at sea (I found two tattered passports washed up on the rocky Greek shores myself), they can provide names, nationalities, and information to authorities before being photographed and fingerprinted in order to receive new paperwork. It is near impossible to discern false claims or stolen identities at that point, only checked briefly against international criminal lists. Many claim to be Syrian, as it results in expedited processing and a better chance at asylum, due to Syria being a veritable war zone. This particular terrorist exploited the system and went on to kill himself and innocent civilians.
But that does not reflect Islam. That does not represent Muslims. That Allah who suicide bombers scream out is not the same who people praise as they come ashore alive on European soil. My fellow humankind: I ask you, do not stigmatize refugees and migrants or the approximate forty million Muslims across the continent who follow a religion of peace and tolerance that goes against the very principles violent extremists claim. The #MuslimsAreNotTerrorists hashtag on Twitter spoke to that idea. I am in a private Facebook group of refugees sharing information about the journey where many expressed humiliation at what had occurred, bastardizing the name of Islam. I do not believe that such barbaric acts are justifiable by scripture. Please, do not allow for an Islamophobic backlash to bolster ISIS’ extremist narrative.
The violence and carnage that we witnessed in Paris is precisely that which refugees are fleeing, an omnipresent threat in Syria, Iraq, and ISIS-controlled territories. There is a veritable flood of desperate migrants seeking refuge, terrorized by ISIS and regime brutality, lives endangered and property destroyed by the chaos and war that has allowed for ISIS to grow in size, territory, reach, strength, and coordination. By and large, these are NOT bad people and we must remember to honor human dignity at every moment in every place.
1 in 20 Syrians are wounded or dead. 1 in 5 have fled their nation as refugees. Half of the population of 22 million is now displaced. This year alone, 806,000 individuals have made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean with 660,770 going to Greece. 3,604 have died at sea, 360 in last four weeks. Despite a capacity of 2,800, there are now between 12,000 and 16,000 refugees on Lesvos. The breakdown of nationalities remains similar: 62% Syrian, 23% Afghan, 7% Iraqi, the rest a mix, primarily from the Middle East and East Africa. In November, 3,300 humans are still arriving every day to Lesvos, despite harsh winter weather conditions, increasingly violent waters, and heightened risk of hypothermia. In past years, the number of solo travelers and families braving the Mediterranean has plunged with the temperatures, but 2015 shattered those patterns: October saw a 27% increase over September, setting a monthly record with 218,953 arrivals, the total of the entire 2014 calendar year. Fear that European countries will close borders is fueling urgency in movement, to an even greater degree in the immediate wake of the Paris terror attacks, as I just heard expressed by a refugee I have kept in touch with who is now in Germany. The debate in the United States is intensifying over the quantities of refugees that should be permitted to enter, a politically-charged issue with massive national security ramifications. Countries cannot altogether shut borders, but heavy vetting and screening is an absolute imperative.
Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, Sinai, Ankara… a regional war has now become global. How can there be a phenomenal mess in Iraq and Syria and peace around the Mediterranean and across the world?
A threat of this magnitude cannot be neutralized. A catastrophe of this scale cannot be contained. The landscape is bleak and the realities tragic, but there is a need for decisive action with a clear strategy to lead a united fight against ruthless, radical jihadists – with ISIS topping this international terror network.
There IS a dire humanitarian crisis which must be addressed, but that is not enough; we must go further to combat its root causes. A solution may not be known, but neither Assad nor ISIS is the answer. The defeat of ISIS, stabilization of the region, and political transition to end the war and rebuild nations are all crucial elements in combatting the threat posed to the region and world. The impact of this bloodshed extends beyond borders, as we see with terrifying frequency. Terrorists are now hiding among migrants, as commanded by ISIS, but fighters have been going back and forth between Europe and Middle Eastern ISIS strongholds prior to the recent influx in numbers, in addition to self-radicalized fighters following terrorist propaganda abroad. This campaign against extremism cannot be an imposition of foreign will, rather a united, comprehensive, and efficient one at the crisis' origin. Chaos, danger, and tragedy are not words one wishes to hear in association with a new United Nations report, particularly about the island of Lesvos, the primary entry port for staggering numbers of refugees en route to Europe, which cannot meet needs. The threat is real, present, and turbulent.
We are witnessing a successful terror campaign: attacking a restaurant, music venue, sports arena and randomly targeting ordinary people to disrupt life, instill fear, steal joy, halt a city, impose darkness, render vulnerable, and incite hatred. There is palpable fear on the streets of Paris, as I hear from dear friends and see play out on the news, as well as here in my home of New York City.
As I mourn and pray, I think about the world I wish for the next generation, for my children, for our sons and daughters. We cannot make it less bad, rather more good. Our goal must be a better, safer place for all. We cannot stop in the face of violence, extremism, hardship, denial, rejection, death, destruction, hatred, and unexplainable tragedy. Collectively, we possess the spirit, determination, and resolve to create a more just, equitable, healthy, secure planet. I choose to remain hopeful, seek light, believe in humanity, and actively work to improve the world – through love. Perhaps I am naïve, but at tragic times like these, I hear Imagine playing in my head, put a smile on my face as I fight back genuine tears, and look to join the helpers. Will you go hug someone?