Race should not affect refugee treatment


I watch millions of Ukrainians struggle to escape Russian terror in their homeland. We sympathize with their fears and agonize for lives lost and ruined. I remember the refugees I met in Samos, Greece, where I went in 2016 to help the Syrians, Pakistanis, Afghans, Palestinians and Africans who arrived there.

They had escaped poverty, death and violent turmoil in their country and sought peace and security.

What they found when they arrived in Samos was a detention camp. Instead of receiving a warm welcome, they were locked up and sometimes sent home to certain death.

Politicians took advantage of what was called the refugee crisis. They pandered to the baser instincts of a population that didn’t want these foreigners in their country – these people with strange hairstyles and foreign cultures and religions. They stirred up hatred in the hope of garnering votes. They got votes. The right is growing. The conditions for the refugees have become unbearable.

During my eight month stay in Samos, I interviewed many refugees. I heard their stories of escape and near-death experiences as they traveled thousands of miles through mountains and deserts, trying to avoid wild animals, including the police who were looking for them. Hunger, cold, thirst, imprisonment and disease never left them. Avoiding death was a constant effort. So was the need to pay often deceptive smugglers in the hope of ensuring safe arrival. Many times this did not happen.

Small, overcrowded boats carrying men, women and children from Turkey to Samos often capsized at sea. Sometimes entire families disappeared. If they arrived safe and sound, they were taken to the detention center where they were held indefinitely. How long often depended on political decisions made by men in sharp suits in air-conditioned offices in a distant country.

It should become apparent that the people I referred to are brown or black, not white and blue-eyed like the desperate Ukrainians who are being welcomed with open arms across Europe and American volunteers rushing to help and fundraisers are on the rise. NATO and the United States provide Ukraine with billions of dollars in humanitarian aid and weapons. There are no detention camps for Ukrainian refugees.

What a contrast to the arrival of refugees from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.

Given the ugly history of racism and bigotry, it’s reasonable to suspect that Ukrainians are treated the way they should be because their skin color and culture are more acceptable to people with similar characteristics.

The color and culture of Syrians, Africans, Afghans, Palestinians and Pakistanis, as well as Latinos, Yemenis and Haitians, are different, and they are often unwelcome, no matter how violent or poor they may be. ‘they flee. As a result, millions of people linger in the streets, under bridges and in overcrowded and dangerous tent cities, devoid of human care, justice and hope.

The difference in how brown, black, and white siblings are treated only brings shame. For the good of all, this must be changed. There’s no time to lose.

While I was in Greece, the Schwarz Foundation in Munich, Germany asked me to put my interviews into book form, which I did. You can learn more about the realities of being an unwanted refugee if you read “Hear Me”, available through Amazon and Lulu.com.

Sallie Latch, a retired teacher and former Peace Corps volunteer, is the author of “Hear Me.” She lives in Petaluma.

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