ISTANBUL — She’s not travelling anywhere. She’s not applying for anything. But when she sits cross-legged on an Istanbul sidewalk, head down and hands out, she always keeps her passport by her side. The young woman is from Syria, but passersby won’t take her word on that.
“They aren’t real Syrians, you know.”
The words snake through the countries that host nearly 4 million people fleeing a war that erupted exactly four years ago. I’ve heard the phrase, or echoes of it, in Jordan, in Bulgaria, in Lebanon. There too, Syrians wave their papers as proof that they have suffered enough. But official documents aren’t sufficient for the sidewalk bureaucrats. They sometimes offer their private denials apologetically; more often, not. Over coffee, one Turkish art curator thought to justify the absurd claim with some absurd credentials: “I know real Syrians. They’re my friends, and these people are different.”
Wherever Syrians find refuge, they find denial. Vague, unsubstantiated, weird, and stubborn denial. As television screens, Twitter feeds and neighbourhoods collect more bloody and tattered evidence of atrocities in Syria, it’s worth asking what motivates anyone to deny their scale, severity, circumstances or very existence.
There’s at least one obvious motivation to deny victimhood: if — through either the banality of evil or the zealous commission of it—people commit atrocities, atrocity-denials may keep them out of jail or even in power. Assad’s non-combatant Syrian supporters may deny his atrocities for different reasons though: out of genuine ignorance, out of psychological necessity, or out of the desire to preserve the many protections that group affiliations provide, people may filter information through their own loyalties. The Syrian civil war is a vortex of external strategic interests as well, motivating some foreign leaders to minimize or ignore the barrel bombs being dropped from the sky and the people being starved to death in their homes. Finally, and most chillingly, if a perverted moral system justifies an atrocity, the system’s adherents will necessarily deny that their actions qualify as atrocities. ISIS doesn’t assert its own righteousness by hiding its beheadings: it does so by broadcasting them.
But even when we add up the secular barrel-bombers, the loyal group members, the foreign powers, and the Islamist nihilists — all those with clear motivations to deny the monumental horror that is Syria — we still can’t account for everyone denying that victims of an epic suffering are real.
The answer, I think, lies in the possibility that “real” is code for “innocent,” and that “innocent” is code for “deserving of support.” At the very least, Syrians deserve a Security Council that wouldn’t abuse its vetoes to obstruct protection and accountability. And humanitarian assistance within their country. And fair and honest resettlement commitments from other countries. And not to be abandoned at sea. And not to be assaulted at foreign borders. And not to be trapped behind their own borders. And they certainly deserve enough water, tents, toilets and food to survive the poverty that has followed atrocities. Only by denying that Syrian people are worthy of this support can the world deny that it has overwhelmingly shirked its responsibility to provide it.
If Syrian refugees are innocent, then we are guilty. And who could ever bear to be this guilty.
My colleague Terry Glavin recently wrote, compellingly and correctly, that from Syria, “Canada’s political class has been mostly content to look away, to concoct self-aggrandizing excuses for the obscenity of its indifference.” Our excuses and our indifference — our denials — strike me as being so obstinately opposed to the facts that a gruesome reality insists upon, so desperately determined to evade the full awfulness of Syria’s truth, that they can only be intended to help us cope with the otherwise agonizing knowledge that we have allowed several million people to suffocate under the greatest humanitarian crisis on earth.
We’re all looking past the woman who sits cross-legged on a sidewalk, Syrian passport always by her side.