Racial and human equality – enshrined but yet so fragile

Two brothers in a Syrian refugee camp. (Photo by Carl Hétu – CNEWA Canada)

By Carl Hétu, National Director, CNEWA Canada

Ten years ago, I visited Syria. I recall being impressed by so many people of different religions and ethnicities living together in peace and respect. I could not have foreseen the war and division that were to come. It took a springtime rebellion to push the fault lines and, sadly, ten springs later, they’ve still not stabilized.

When I met John (fictional name) in Lebanon in 2014, he was a refugee from this Syrian conflict.  A successful Christian businessowner, he provided employment to Syrians of all ethnicities and backgrounds.

Things were fine until conflict erupted and people started to lose their economic stability. Revenues started to plummet, people were laid off and then he was kidnapped by former employees. They put a ransom on his life. A few months later, he was told he and his Christian community were no longer welcomed in the country.

When I met him, two years after his arrival to Lebanon, he and his family were living in a one bedroom apartment along with his brother’s family.  They were among the more than 1 million Syrians who had to flee.

In Lebanon, a different form of discrimination awaited them. Despite the great generosity of a particular local Melkite Catholic Church, which my organization supported and which led to our encounter, John came to terms with the fact that as a Syrian he may never be accepted by his closest neighbours. With a return to Syria next to impossible, John prayed hard for emigration anywhere.

In 2016, John and his family were welcomed to Canada through private sponsorship by a local church, part of the 25,000 Syrian refugee program. They were extremely grateful for the opportunity.  After years without any formal education, the kids are now back at school. John and his wife have found work.

That said, despite all of the good people they have encountered here, they have now started to experience some of the disadvantages that come with being Arab in Canada and so insecurities, eerily similar from the past, have resurfaced. Like many people in our world, John cannot find a way to outrun discrimination.

To the foreigner, our own society may look similar to the peaceful Syria of 2010. Against certain backdrops, we do indeed find harmony. But, as we’ve seen in recent events, peace and harmony may reside merely at surface level, resting on a fragile base. Racism, discrimination and suspicion of “the other” are present, though often veiled.

During the past few decades, our world has seen large movements of peoples while, at the same time, entering a new phase of globalization. People of different cultures, language, colour and backgrounds increasingly share national boundaries and close quarters.

With climate change, ongoing conflict, poverty and injustice, even more people will be on the move despite the current pandemic, changing the traditional demographic composition in many a country at an unprecedented rate ; but the outcome does not have to be destabilizing. There is an opportunity to build a better world where we can all live safely – in a stable and free way. But how do we get there?

In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted at the United Nations. It contains a blueprint for the world most of us are looking for. This summer, as we set aside some time for reading, how about we pick it up and refresh ourselves with its articles?

After the emotions and arguments have dissipated from our streets, and some form of cursory peace resumes, perhaps we’ll be ready for the long-term changes that are needed to find peace.