Lessons from Ukraine: Refugees, Racism and Reality

This morning greeted me with the tremendous privilege of a phone call inviting me to become a referee for some Syrian refugees who are becoming British citizens. It brought back many memories from a few years ago when they first arrived in our area. I had the chance to meet them on many occasions. These memories are of joyous occasions like the meals we had together and sadder memories helping one family deal with some anti-social behaviour they experienced. This morning I heard how well they are doing now and how they are in better accommodation than when they first arrived some years ago. It struck me how things have changed over the years and yet our media is saturated with another violent conflict and the ensuing refugees. 

War is a terrible thing, it is always the innocents that suffer the most. War polarises issues and weaponises them – drawing up battle lines and making hard lines of things that existed peacefully before. War makes flaws that were already there seem stark. War de-humanises people making power more important than other people’s lives. War is described as politics by other means, it is all about power and domination at any cost. The main cost is not just finance but humanity itself; the meagre gains are only counted when we don’t include the massive human cost. Refugees are a strong reminder of the inhumanity that human beings can inflict on each other. They remind us of our humanity and our frailty. 

The refugees fleeing Ukraine are just as human as those fleeing Syria some years ago, those fleeing Afghanistan and those in other conflicts. The response to the latest crisis coming from the Ukrainian War in our press has been encouraging with people offering to open their homes. Yet it is so discouraging when we hear of the vile racism expressed in desperate border situations and on trains. We understand that the border officials in European country separated people by race – making black and Asian people wait behind white people trying to escape the conflict. Also, media commentary and much on social media is suggesting a wider racial narrative by saying the European response is different to other conflicts and are suggesting the response: a ‘white’ conflict is different to other conflicts in other parts of the world (including those the West has been very involved in). The Russian government also has used this narrative to try and expose perceived hypocrisy in the West, ignoring its own internal issues with racism expressed perhaps in the very nationalism driving this war. What lessons are we learning from this? Is there a hypocrisy in the West? Is the response of the European Union and others racially-biased? If so, what should we do about it?

There is no denying the racism we have seen filmed by refugees in Ukraine and especially on the Polish borders. We just don’t know how wide-spread it is. This racism is horrendous and inexcusable – violating UN Conventions and, made especially stark in situations like this, showing we have learned so little from ‘by-gone’ eras. Hearing this is like experiencing something out of the dark ages, a destructive ‘dinosaur’ resurrected perhaps? Or is it more harrowing demonstrating that our so called ‘tolerant society’ has only responded to racism at a surface level and yet left it existing deeper down? When clear examples were sent in by Nigerian embassy and African Union showing discrimination the response by government officials blamed bureaucratic process. Racism often hides in our communities always claiming, “It is the process not the people!”. It is vital that this is exposed and shown up for what it is – systemic racism needs challenging in all of its forms till it goes from the heart. Sadly the message from the crisis points at the Polish border exposes how European equality and fairness may have existed at a surface level rather than a deeper heartfelt value. This racism can occur in every culture as it creates distance between humanity; making certain people ‘other’ rather than ‘brother’. There is much work to be done.

In line with accusation of Western hypocrisy, there seems to have been a greater response to the crisis by European nations than we have seen in other recent wars. Even a willingness to change laws to admit more refugees (although some haven’t given them this status) and invite them into homes under government support (as the UK government appears to be doing). Is the driving force in this racism or is it the recent past of the Second World War and the many refugees fresh in the memories of European nations? Nations trying to reawaken the kindness of previous generations because they have a model in living memory? However all-accepting the EU presents itself, it exists primarily for the betterment of its existing states and not humanity itself. Perhaps a lesson of the EU response exposes a hidden nationalism and racism? For NATO nations does the fact that there are Russian weapons causing the carnage make it different to when it was Western weapons destroying homes and livelihoods in other parts of the world?

The accusation of the hypocrisy in these situations does seems to fit, but who is pure enough to make it? If we are really honest this exists in every nation on Earth and their alliances.  Hypocrisy seems to more stark when we choose any side apart from that of humanity. Whether it is choosing a support for the West or an anti-Western stance, a political position or nationalism in its various forms. This polarisation damages our view of humanity and yet shows more of what lies underneath. One of the things the Ukrainian conflict does is refresh visions Europe may have thought were consigned to the history books. 

One of the dangers in watching war and following all the narratives by each side is we can all end up as critical armchair commentators. Pointing our fingers at the people on our screens and giving our opinions without paying attention to attitudes in us that cause people to become ‘other to us’. We can lose something of the humanity of the people on our screens and see some as less than others. We can, from our perspectives, feel a bit better when Russians lose a battle, or Ukrainians, because we have chosen a side different to choosing humanity. The bloodshed wherever it is in the world should horrify us, when it doesn’t it should warn us of how hard our hearts are becoming to other human beings around us. 

We need to be stronger at challenging racism in all its forms and any hypocrisy inside ourselves. Looking to welcome refugees from all nations and help our governments become better at helping them to be accepted and part of us. We need to challenge things to make others’ lives better and bridge gaps between people groups. We live in a global village and international conflict affects us and many people around us. 

I know some lovely Russians – wonderful generous-hearted people, and have spent time in their homes, I miss them and hope they are okay. I also know some Ukrainians, have eaten meals with them, laughed jokes and enjoyed their preaching in my local church. When I hear statements against Russia or Ukraine I think of the people I know and hold onto the memories of who they are as this keeps the humanity alive for me.  

There are many lessons we need to learn as society from the conflict in Ukraine. We must also realise with humility that when we point with our finger we need to also look at the three fingers on our own hand pointing back at us and let them change us too.

Nigel Taylor (15/3/2022)

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