Refugees: Fear, Facts, and Faith

Although there has been a veritable cacophony of commentary about the current refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East, I’m going to add my voice to the mix. Because, why not?

It seems to me that the predominant issue here is fear. And let me begin by saying that I completely understand the fear. People have by now watched about 144 hours of consecutive news coverage of the Paris attacks. We have seen the shaky cell phone videos of bloodied people pouring out back doors of the Bataclan theatre, and we’ve watched more recent video of the suburban firefight that killed one of the terrorists. We’ve heard that at least one of the attackers may have entered Europe through the refugee routes that are being taken by hundreds of thousands of desperate migrants. So when I hear people say that they are afraid that Canada’s acceptance of 25000 refugees might increase the risk of those things happening here, I completely understand.

But earlier this week something else happened that got me thinking about fear. In Toronto Ontario, a Muslim woman was attacked by some men because of her faith. One of my friends, a Muslim man, told me that his wife had called him at work after hearing the news. She told him that it made her worried to take their young daughter out in public. She was afraid that something might happen to her.

Of course my friend assured her that she would be fine. He reassured her that the likelihood of something happening to her was extremely slim and that the actions of these men did not represent the rest of society.

Isn’t it ironic? How different is she from anyone else? Non-Muslims hear the newscasters tell us that “Islamic extremists” are responsible for the Paris attacks and that they may have entered France as refugees. We hear “Islamic” and we stop listening, or at least we stop listening critically. We become afraid. My friend’s wife hears “anti-Muslim violence” and she hears “anti-Muslim”. She stops listening. She’s afraid.

I don’t blame her for her fear and I don’t blame Canadians for theirs. Fear in response to news that is scary is very natural. But I think her fear is unfounded in the same way I think our fear of refugees is unfounded. And her husband responded to her fear the way we should all respond to ours – with facts.

The fact is, statistically speaking my friend’s wife is very, very, unlikely to be the victim of anti-Muslim violence in Canada. Of the tens of thousands of Muslims in this country, they collectively encounter hundreds of thousands of non-Muslims every day, and they all do it quite peacefully. Similarly, of the millions of non-Muslims in this country, we collectively have millions of encounters with Muslims in this country every day, and we do it quite peacefully.

I don’t mean to minimize what happened.  We should of course support the victims and come together to bring those responsible to justice.

But statistically speaking, you are far more likely to be hurt or killed by a car or a disease or even your domestic partner than you are by a terrorist who claims to be inspired by Islam. Yet these risks don’t stop us from driving or living or getting married. We take the risk of road trips because our country is beautiful and we love to see it. We take the risk of disease because steak and cheese and wine are delicious and we love to enjoy them. We take the risk of marriage because relationships are wonderful and it fulfills us to have them.

Facts help us to moderate our risk, but they don’t prevent us from doing what we love – and fear shouldn’t prevent us from doing what is right. The fact is, there is a small possibility that someone will enter Canada as a refugee with the intent to conduct a terrorist attack. It is statistically possible. But it is *extremely* unlikely. We moderate the risk by doing screening of various kinds. What we don’t do, is stop welcoming people to this country or giving them shelter in times of need.

Canada – though not perfect – has proud moments of charity and generosity in the face of great fear, and we justifiably take pride in those moments. In the hours after 9/11, a ridiculously small town called Gander in Newfoundland took in thousands of international travelers whose flights were diverted when the US closed its airspace. There was no question about taking them in, although we had just seen four planes brought down by international travelers on flights. This small Newfoundland town had no hotels to house these people, so the citizens took them into their homes, schools and churches. Business owners opened their stores and gave away their wares for free. Restaurants donated food and people cooked an endless supply of casseroles. Food and blankets and long distance phone calls; warmth and comfort and friendship were all given with nothing asked in return. The welcome that was provided to these people is heart-wrenchingly beautiful, and it was done in spite of the risk that one of the travelers may have been a terrorist looking to murder innocent civilians. Thank you, Gander Newfoundland for giving us a shining example of who we should always aspire to be.

So fear is natural, and we fight it with facts. But what of our faith?

My personal belief is that everyone is entitled to the religious or non-religious faith of their choice. I also believe that faith should inform how you live and it should motivate you to improve the lives of others. But under no circumstances should it incite you to condemn or dismiss, judge or insult, isolate or categorize or belittle or ridicule. If you are doing these things – you are doing it wrong. This is true whether your faith is in Christ or Allah or Budda or the Earth or yourself or nothing at all.

So in summary – your fear is natural but please inform yourself with facts. If those “facts” suggest hatred or bigotry, then they are not facts at all – they are just hatred and bigotry. By all means, be free to decide that you feel Canada should or should not admit any refugees – just please debate the issue openly, with facts and statistics rather than with fear. And remember Gander, Newfoundland.

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