In 1996, 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl asked Ambassador Madeline Albright, “We have heard that half a million (Iraqi) children have died (because of sanctions against Saddam Hussein). I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?”
Albright answered, “I think that is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, the price is worth it.”
When is the price not worth it?
One, two, 10 million?
Is it always worth it as long as they don’t wash up on Hampton Beach – or in the Hamptons?
What’s the price being paid today by Syrians, Libyans, Afghans, Yemenis, Iraqis, Palestinians, Kurds, Christians, Druze, Yezidis, Rohingya and others fleeing civil war, starvation, oppression and persecution?
Is the price ever right?
I love Syria. I once toured Palmyra with a group led by archaeologist Khalid Al-Asaad, he who was recently beheaded. In Aleppo, I stayed in the Hotel Baron from where Agatha Christie wrote the first part of Murder on the Orient Express. While living in Beirut I did a story on Damascus for National Geographic magazine (which got me banned from Syria for a time) but returned often. Today, I look around my library and recognize books and artifacts acquired in Syria’s souks.
I reflect upon the time when, in 2010, having dinner with students in Phillips Church in Exeter, one asked about the Arab Spring reaching Syria. “That scares me,” I answered, and as I later wrote: “If it happens it will be the longest, bloodiest, deadliest conflict of any uprising, with unforeseeable consequences.” It happened.
It happened in May 2011 when, after three months of civil unrest, 15-year-old Hamza al-Khatib was murdered, mutilated and tortured by Syrian security forces, marking for many the point of no return for a Civil War that continues today.
Since then over 250,000 have been killed – by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, by Daesh and other jihadist groups and by the Syrian opposition – and more than 7,500,000 are internally displaced. Four million more Syrians are sojourners in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and en route to Europe. More than 2,000 have died at sea trying to reach Europe.
Recently, a 3-year-old Kurdish Syrian, Alan Shenu (who was incorrectly called Aylan Kurdi in early media reports) died from drowning along with his mother and 5-year-old brother. A photo of his tiny body, lying on an Aegean beach, went viral and focused international attention upon the desperate plight of Middle Eastern refugees.
Attention focused, too, on the disparate response of the nations upon whose shores they appeared, upon those who welcome strangers into their midst, upon those whose borders of concertina razor-wire they come across and upon those who share responsibility for today’s tragedy because of the overweening arrogance of imperial powers who thought they could break the Middle East without consequence.
European governments are divided about how to accommodate the refugees. Germany’s the most welcoming – expecting to accept 800,000 this year, while countries like Hungary and Macedonia are taking unsympathetic, xenophobic, sometimes Islamophobic positions against the sojourners.
One of the most passionate responses came from Roman Catholic Pope Francis, whose communion includes the tragically targeted, rapidly diminishing Middle East Christian population – primarily Christians being killed and dispossessed by jihadists like Daesh.
Despite the fact that most refugees are Muslim, the pontiff asked each European Catholic parish and monastery to shelter one Syrian family, “that has fled death from war and hunger” – a potential accommodation of between 360,000 and 500,000 refugees.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares,” Hebrews 13:2.
Even before Pope Francis’s call to action, many European citizens spontaneously rose to the humanitarian challenge, volunteering themselves to house refugee families, providing strangers with shelter and sustenance while helping migrants safely traverse Hungary and Macedonia. In Iceland, 10,000 residents volunteered to house Syrians.
Here in America we’re emotionally, spiritually and politically frozen.
Many forget we’re a nation of immigrants. Many forget that Matthew 25 reminds us we’re measured by how we welcome the stranger into our midst.
We have a mixed record over how we welcome strangers. We dispossessed the Native Americans with nary a look back – we struggle still to include them, along with other communities of color, into our body politic. During World War II we turned away Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and built concentration camps for Japanese Americans.
Institutional amnesia allows us to forget our national complicity in the oppression and exploitation of the Cuban people by regimes and corporations favorable to American interests. Such amnesia allows us to both hate Fidel Castro and his repressive regimes and welcome all Cubans who make it to our shores almost without exception – including the families of Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
We forget that the father of Steve Jobs and his sister, author Mona Simpson, was a Syrian student who came to America to study, that Barack Obama’s father was from Kenya, that Bobby Jindal’s parents came from India to America to study and South Carolina’s Gov. Nimrata Nikki Randhawa Haley’s Sikh parents are from the Punjab in India.
“O men! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all-knowing, all-aware.” Quran 49:13.
We forget we all share the Breath of Life – that if we allow it to be extinguished in one it is diminished in all.
Who are we to deny hope and sustenance to the sojourners? If America was to accept just 100,000 strangers it would be as though our state capital, Concord, accepted just 14 strangers (three or four families) – hardly a demographic disruption – yet the best number proposed by President Obama is 10,000 and the worst, proposed by others, is none at all.
“Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality,” Romans 12:11-13.
Practice hospitality. Radical hospitality. Invite, receive and minister to strangers. Challenge the conventional orthodoxy of believing The Other as threatening and unwelcome.
Of course there are risks. Although we’ll make mistakes and stumble on the path we are called upon to “Listen with the ear of your heart,” as St. Benedict said, and to extend love and hospitality toward the sojourner.
Look again at Alan Shenu lying face down on an Aegean beach. Let it haunt you as it haunts me, as I remember my daughter, perhaps age 3, falling asleep on Plaice Cove beach, trusting her family, the world, to shelter her.
Then let us listen to Sufi poet Rumi:
“This Being human is a guesthouse, / Every morning a new arrival, / A joy, / A depression, / A meanness, / Some momentary awareness becomes, / And comes as an unexpected visitor.
“Welcome and entertain them all, / Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, / Who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, / Still, Teach each guest honorably, / He may be clearing you out / For some new delight.
“The dark thought, / The shame, / The malice, / Meet them at the door laughing, / Invite them in, / Be grateful, / For whoever comes, / Because each has been sent, / As a guide from beyond.”
Tiny Alan Shenu paid for our arrogance: Let no more pay.
This column appeared originally in the Concord Monitor.