Beauty inside

Opinion: The double standard of the European refugee response

Editor’s note: Arwa Damon is CNN’s award-winning Senior International Correspondent, usually based in Istanbul, and chairman and co-founder of the charity INARA. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. See more opinion on CNN.

Przemysl, Poland

I see parallel images in the waves of humanity that come towards me. One takes place before my eyes on the border between Ukraine and Poland; big hands clutching small ones, small heads resting on tired shoulders, the constant hum of rolling suitcases. I see faces frozen in shock, etched with lines of trauma that will never completely fade. Their eyes widen in pure disbelief, their minds unable to comprehend the lives they left behind.

The other image superimposed itself in my psyche, created by the torrent of memories from coverage of the 2015 refugee crisis. At the time, crowds crashed against barbed wire accordions on the Greek-Macedonian border. A mother cradled her baby under a plastic sheet in the pouring rain, a father held his listless, feverish little girl saying, “Look at her, look at her condition, in Syria she was a princess.”

Today, it feels like the world has woken up and finally realized how ruthless and murderous the Russian government is. As if for years the Syrians had not died under the same Russian bombs. As if countless Syrian voices weren’t begging the world to help them. Back then, they asked me, “Why doesn’t the world care about us?” But I could never answer the question without crushing them even more. How do you tell someone that their life isn’t part of a geopolitical calculation, that in the grand scheme of the puppeteers, their life isn’t worth that much?

We painfully observe that refugees are selectively welcomed and war criminals are selectively punished. It’s not just the Western media that is biased; it is the western world.

I hear it in the rhetoric of politicians, journalists and world leaders. Rhetoric about how Ukrainians are a “prosperous middle classes,” “the family next door,” “civilized.” As if what is defined as a human being worth saving were identified by the color of his skin, the language he speaks, the religion he practices or his place of birth.

The sad truth is that our humanity is superficial. And it breaks my heart.

Today, in Poland, I see the beauty of what can happen when refugees are welcomed. When kindness and compassion are what greet those on the run for their lives. When hundreds of volunteers wait bus after bus with signs offering free rides and warm accommodations. When host country security forces facilitate movement, provide information and shelter. When a stranger says, “It’s okay, you’re safe now, what can I do for you?”

Again, I think back to what happens when refugees are not welcome. In 2015, none of the restaurants or cafes around Budapest’s Hungarian train station allowed refugees to enter. Those who fled were herded like cattle by the security forces until they burst in and fled. Miles and miles of people walking, hoping and praying for someone to show them mercy.

There was so much anti-refugee rhetoric from European governments and populations at the time, surrounded by fears of ISIS infiltrating, that those on the road were “too different”. And yes, it was also at the height of the ISIS bombardments in Europe. But it was also the peak of attacks by IS and other terrorist groups in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond.

At the heart of it all is the sad reality that the refugees I have spoken of in recent years came from the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan and were seen as “the other” by many around the world. western. And for some reason, that made their pain and suffering irrelevant.

I told the world on CNN that Syrians are like everyone else; they had dreams, homes, a sense of security they believed in. I had the impression that it did not resonate, did not penetrate. For the vast majority of our Western audience, they have remained “the other”.

As a journalist, I often wonder: did I somehow fail back then? How could I have told these refugee stories for the world to care? I carried that guilt with me for years, still today. Because surely there should have been a way to show the western world – the same world that stands now with the Ukrainians; that the Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and others who have taken this same path across Europe are like them.

I am Arab-American, but my appearance – fair skin, green eyes, blond hair – is so outside the Arab stereotype that no one wonders if I belong.

I see Syrian and Iraqi faces in those of the Ukrainians. And I’m transported back to Greece in 2015 when an elegant, elderly Syrian lady fleeing for protection in the mud grabbed my arm, her touch as soft as my Nana’s.

I remember that same year, a woman in Hungary asked us not to film, not because she was worried about the safety of her family still in Syria, but because she didn’t want us to the humiliated way, sitting on the ground, dirty.

This week, I watched the Ukrainian women and children parading in the waiting buses, and I’m so relieved for them that their refugee story is different.

Not everything was bad. I witnessed heartwarming moments in 2015. People on the highway from Hungary to Austria stopped with buggies, food and water for refugees. Apologizing for their government’s behavior saying, “We’re not all like that.” And at makeshift gathering points, local efforts eventually combined with those of larger charities to provide basic shelter. But none of this compares to what I witness here in Ukraine and Poland.

At every refugee resettlement center and border crossing, there are mountains of clothing, stuffed animals, strollers and more. A whole system and an army of volunteers working together to help fleeing Ukrainians in need.

I remember when then German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that her country would accept one million syrians. The refugees I was with in Hungary started crying with joy; finally feeling welcome and no longer being treated as unwanted waste. But ultimately, over the months, Europe’s biggest fix was to strike a deal with Turkey to shut down the migrant route, freezing those on the route in limbo.

Seven years later, many of them are still in the same makeshift camps and centers, their lives stagnating. Some children born in the camps have never known a real home. Many are probably unaware that the Syrians are still in these makeshift camps.

I juxtapose these memories with what is happening in the world today, with so many nations declaring all Ukrainian refugees welcome. I see Western nations offering these refugees multi-year residencies, work permits and free transit to other countries.

I see how Western and other powers are expressing their outrage at Ukraine, the same nations that have paid lip service at best on Syria and those that have been content to to shut up. I see country after country, Western and non-Western, unified to pressure Russia, impose tougher sanctions than ever. I see credit card companies denying use in Russia, airlines stopping boycotted services and products.

Wherever they come from, the emotions of refugees are so similar: the inability to understand how their reality has shifted so suddenly and violently, and the survivor guilt that ravages those who fled, even if it was to save their children, even if it was rationally the only choice.

Each war is its own, its contours drawn by powers greater than the individual, and by the greed and cruelty of geopolitics. But the pain of humanity caught in the showdown remains the same. The agony of realizing that not only is the house no longer safe, but that it may no longer exist at all.

Villages and towns where little feet ran and chased each other, now reduced to rubble. The kitchens and living rooms where families gathered over meals and couples bickered are blasted with seashells covered in gray dust. Head in hands, shoulders shaking, souls screaming.

This pain is universal. The reaction should be too.