I originally wrote this piece last November shortly after the Paris attacks. I am publishing it here in response to last night's events in Nice. Let us grieve together, let us remember the victims of last night's attacks together, and let us come together with courage to welcome the millions fleeing terror.
In a residential area of Béziers, a mid-sized city in Southwest France, about forty Syrian refugees are squatting in a series of low-rise buildings. I first went down to meet some of these families with a friend from my village who was involved through the local mosque. Since then I've been involved with a local solidarity effort to support these families by providing basic needs, medication, food, etc. Yesterday I was having a coffee to catch up with one of our food donors. She's fiery, well connected, and she asked me, "We need to know their stories, tell me about these families. That's how I can get people to offer support." I only have fragments of a narrative but I want to carve out this time to share what I know. We all know how their stories will be perceived if we don't share our pieces of the puzzle.
Nima and Salima* are eight, my daughter's age. When I brought my kids with me a few weeks ago on a food delivery the three girls sat together on the beach mat I pulled out of the trunk. We had picked up some beads and craft supplies on the way and they worked carefully as they strung together necklaces, communicating with giggles and gestures. Nima's brother is six and played soccer with my son and a few of the other boys in the background. He's the one that had been repeatedly turned away from the dentist and also has a severe problem with his ear which requires surgery. Their parents and most of the families currently squatting in these apartments come from Homs, one of the most shelled areas of Syria.
There are currently approximately thirty five people living in these apartments. It's a shifting number as new families arrive and others are resettled in state-provided housing. As the matriarch, Zena, explained, "We have all been separated for the past three years and we are now finally all together." Haim was a dentistry student. Abul a shopkeeper. Faouzi a pharmacist. He saw his best friends disappear in the bombing, literally, under the rubble. The men often stay in the apartments, it's the women who gather outside in the courtyard to greet us. We've heard stories of women wearing five pairs of pants under their dresses to fend off rapists. Ages were faked to avoid conscription into Assad's army. Babies were born along the way,
We've been doing this work for a few months now and it's as messy as can be. People offer up twenty kilo bags of rice and say "I'm sure they can all share it". Or they drop off a bunch of toys with two of the kids saying, "They can choose some of them to keep and others to give to their friends." I think of how willing my kids would be to pick a toy and give away the rest. And the adults have learned to do what is required to protect their families- so they may not be so willing to split open that bag of rice.
One Saturday Zena invited us up to her home for coffee and half an hour later was screaming with another a neighbor about who had more groceries. You didn't need to speak Arabic to understand what is going on. So what do we learn from that?
These are people. They are generous and warm. They are scared and distrustful. They fight. They make up. The kids always want candy. The adults always offer tea. Some want to stay here in France. Others would like to go home as soon as it's safe. Are they perfect? Of course not. Like us, they are people -- like us, they are afraid of terrorism. Unlike most of us, they have lived this terror firsthand.
I had promised my daughter she could come with me last Saturday to play with Nima and Salima. On Saturday morning, we woke up to the news of the attacks in Paris and learned that France was in a national state of emergency -- we decided she better stay at home. Just to be clear, we weren't afraid of the Syrians. On the contrary -- having lived through the backlash after 9/11 in the U.S. we were concerned of any potential danger from anti-immigrant/anti-Arab groups in the area. Fortunately the only conflict in Béziers on our visit came from a missing bag of food. That evening though, my daughter was furious. "Mommy, why did you go without me? I wanted to see my friends! I made them presents!" Next time, I will bring her. I won't let fear conquer her desire to be a part of someone else's story.
What lesson do we teach our children when we close our doors to literally millions of people who need our help because we are afraid? That's not the legacy I want our generation to leave. I believe we are better, stronger, and braver than this.
*All names have been changed for this piece.