There I was, sitting at a B&B, having breakfast. The other guests were a French elderly couple living in Durban. So the host and the guests started talking about Syrian refugees.
“I had a chat with someone high up the ranks in the South African government,” our host explained to them. “We were supposed to have 30,000 Syrians come here, but we had an outburst of xenophobia, so they decided it was better if the Syrians didn’t come here. I was in Europe a while ago, and it’s so bad back there.”
“Yes,” replied the French elderly woman – in broken English – “We were considering moving back to France at some point, but we’re just waiting to see what will happen with the elections.”
Racists care about each others’ racism. This conversation that went on for quite a bit longer was wrong in so many ways. It was early in the morning, I hadn’t had coffee yet, so apart from fuming inside, I didn’t react. I probably should have, but I just sat there in silence, not really believing what was being said. It was an awful conversation.
First of all, speaking positively about the xenophobic attacks in South Africa is all kinds of wrong. When I was in Nigeria earlier this year, almost every single Nigerian who found out I was living in South Africa asked me why my fellow countrymen hate Nigerians so much. Just a mere hinting at benefits of xenophobia is just wrong.
Second, Syrian refugees are some of the most at-risk refugees. They are fleeing a war zone. As Somali-British writer Warsan Shire graphically explains in her poem “Home”: “no one puts their children in a boat / unless the water is safer than the land”.
Many Europeans are reacting extremely negative towards the influx of Syrian refugees and in the same breath with mention Muslim extremism, not realising that these refugees are fleeing from that very type of violence, which they are experiencing in much larger and graver amounts. I should have interrupted the conversation and asked: “Where should they go then?”
Georteyphobia (the fear of history)
Third, and quite ironic, the French couple did not seem to grasp how so many French people have been refugees themselves in the last few centuries. In the 17th Century, many French Protestants fled the persecution they were facing back from the Roman Catholics in France and ended up settling in South Africa. The Huguenots stuck around and there are strong concentrations of French people in some parts of our country.
The irony that these French ancestors were fleeing religious violence and sometimes barely assimilated to their new country seemed to be missed entirely on the French elderly couple.
Also in the 20th century, during two World Wars, French people fled their country to escape the violence of the German empire. They were welcomed in several of their neighbouring countries.
You would think that any student of world history would be so kind to return the courtesy by helping out Syrian refugees in need.
Selective memory loss
But, racists are notorious sufferers of selective memory loss. They only remember the history that contributes to their racist thinking. In a world where people change their Facebook pictures to show solidarity with 4 people being killed in London, it baffles me that they close the doors on the millions that are trying to escape the Syrian war zone.
My Saturday morning didn’t start well. Racism tires me and that morning I didn’t have the energy to engage the couple who after a few decades in South Africa still weren’t getting further than broken English – oh, the irony of fearing a lack of Syrian assimilation.
Later that day, we went to a wedding. We were welcomed by the Xhosa and Shona families of the bride and groom. We celebrated an intercultural unity with a diverse mix of race and culture. We got a preview of what a world without racism could look like. For the rest of the day, I deliberately suffered selective memory loss and for a few hours forgot about racists and how they trash our communities.
The next morning we went to a breakfast place. There we were confronted by a number of entitled white people treating the black staff horribly.
I wish I had a switch for selective memory loss.
If you really aren’t convinced that Syrians have the right to flee and should be welcomed with open arms, please watch the shocking footage in this video and explain to me why.
If you claim to follow Jesus and you’re not ready to welcome refugees and foreigners in your midst, then maybe take some time to read the Bible:
- This article in Relevant Magazine points out a few passages to start with
- This overview at UCC might be another good place
Featured 📷 Philippe Huguen / AFP – Getty Images