With Fresh Eyes


The Human Toll

Fadi Nicola sits at the hospital bedside of his wife Juliet, recovering from shrapnel wounds to her stomach and back after the couple’s home in northern Syria was destroyed by Turkish bombing. Fadi does not believe his wife will walk again. Their shop, their livelihood, their past life, are also gone. They are among the victims caught in the incursionary offensive across the Turkish-Syrian border. Their personal story is eclipsed by the daily headlines of crises and conflicts, by the blustery threats hurled back and forth.

The Syrian Kurds, the country’s largest ethnic minority, established a self-governing region in northern Syria. A long-standing conflict with Turkey, its neighbor to the north, has centered on Kurdish groups desiring an independent state. The Turkish government has accused Kurdish groups of terrorist activity and has carried out, over the years, incursions and artillery strikes into the Kurdish territories.

The Turkish aggression had been stifled due to a small U.S. troop presence in the region. This fragile yet effective dynamic changed in October when, after a call with Turkish President Erdogan, President Trump ordered the U.S. troops withdrawn. Immediately, Turkish aggression took an ominous turn. According to reporting in Rolling Stone magazine (“The Betrayal of the Kurds” by Jason Motlagh, RS 1335, January 2020), the Kurdish lands were subjected to “artillery barrages, drone attacks, and ground incursions” by the Turkish military. The Kurds refute the Turkish claims that they are responsible for terrorist activity, citing their efforts alongside U.S. special forces to fight ISIS militants, at the cost of 11,000 Kurdish lives. One Kurdish journalist claims that the Turkish attacks are “a deliberate act of setting up the Kurds and religious minorities in northeastern Syria for ethnic cleansing.”

According to reports, the renewed conflict has resulted in several hundred Kurdish civilian deaths, 300,000 people displaced, many seeking refuge in Iraq. It is this toll, this human tragedy, that slips under our radar and goes unchecked.

Worldwide, the UN Refugee Agency estimates that nearly 71 million people have been forced from their homes, 26 million of whom are refugees, with half of the refugees under the age of 18. More than half of the refugees helped by this agency hail from three countries: Syria, Afghanistan, and South Sudan.

The rhetoric of certain world leaders denigrating refugees and their plight has had a dehumanizing effect, resulting in public suspicion and fear. When those fleeing persecution, violence, or drought in their homeland are referred to as an “infestation” or are accused of terrorist intent, a dire consequence will follow us. Instead, when we seek understanding of such flight, and work toward solvable and humane solutions, we take note of our common humanity.

Travel scholar Rick Steves challenges us to counter the growing nativism through an open mind and heart. His antidote: travel. For those unable to venture abroad, travel can be carried out vicariously, through books, film, connecting with others from varied cultures and backgrounds. The result: a broader and more appreciative world view. A valuable resource: Rick Steves’s book Travel as a Political Act: How to Leave Your Baggage Behind.

An intriguing and pertinent chapter in his book is “Mission: Understand Iran,” recounting his trip there a decade ago. He spoke to many on the street, inquiring about their families, their work, their dreams. He witnessed their customs and rituals. He sought to connect with them through a shared humanity. In his own words: “I went to Iran for the same reasons I travel anywhere: to get out of my culture and learn, to go to a scary place and find it’s not so scary, to bring distant places to people who’ve yet to go there. I have long held that travel can be a powerful force for peace. Travel promotes understanding at the expense of fear. And understanding bridges conflicts between nations.”

These words, written in 2009, are fitting today as tensions between the U.S. and Iran again heighten. Heed his advice: become a curious, open, learned partner of this world.

Contact Rich at richmskgn@gmail.com


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