By JIM McKEEVER
We are heartbroken.
News reports, photos and video of the suffering in Ukraine, images of innocent families dead on the ground, have infuriated us, sparked us to act.
We send money, food, supplies, weapons. We attend rallies to show solidarity with Ukraine and speak out against Vladimir Putin’s cruel war.
America’s empathy and compassion are on full display.
And yet …
Refugees from other parts of the world aren’t afforded the same empathy, and receive far different treatment by the United States. To name a few:
Haiti. Mexico. Afghanistan. Central and South America. Cameroon.
What’s the difference?
In other words, most people fleeing Ukraine have white skin.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an overt act of war being played out on social media for all of America to see, unlike the following: Cartel violence (rape, kidnapping, extortion, murders of journalists and others) in Mexico; “ethnic cleansing” in Myanmar; gang violence in Haiti; terrorism in Cameroon against English-speakers. Etcetera.
Al Otro Lado, a legal aid organization based in Tijuana that aids those seeking refuge, posed this question recently on Instagram:
“What’s the difference between someone fleeing violence in Ukraine and someone fleeing violence in Cameroon? The world’s explicit bias is on display (and) the message is clear, if you’re Black or brown, you don’t deserve protection. Humanitarianism must be extended to ALL people.”
Immigration attorneys, scholars and activists also point out that the U.S. often expels asylum seekers of color back into danger that America has created or enabled.
President Joe Biden’s continuation of his predecessor’s Title 42 policy to expel migrants under the guise of public health has been decried as a scam. At last count, 20,000 Haitians have been expelled under Biden, more than 1.2 million people in all.
We don’t know how many people turned away at our southern border have been killed. Because we don’t see them. We don’t hear about them. We don’t talk about them.
Americans don’t post the equivalent of sunflower photos or change their social media profile photos in solidarity. No one flies the flag of Cameroon or wears the colors of Haiti.
This is not just an American problem.
Since Putin began his war, there have been reports of students and others of African descent in Ukraine who have been denied transport out of the country.
“Videos show Black people being pushed off trains and Black drivers being reprimanded and stalled by Ukrainians as they try to flee,” the Brookings Institution reports. “There are even reports of animals being allowed on trains before Africans.”
Groups of Nepalese, Indian and Somalian men told TIME magazine how they were kicked and beaten with batons by Ukrainian guards who later begrudgingly allowed them to cross into Poland — on foot. A 24-year-old Black woman said she encountered hostility from the Ukrainian military, who were dividing people into two groups — those who were white, and those who were not.
Some journalists and European officials have made remarks that are insensitive at best.
“Now the unthinkable has happened to them,” an ITV journalist said of Ukrainians. “And this is not a developing, third world nation. This is Europe!”
Apparently “the unthinkable” should only happen in what Biden’s predecessor called “s***hole countries.”
Please don’t misunderstand.
Refugees from Ukraine deserve our solidarity and our empathy, as well as political and economic intervention to stop the suffering and death at the hands of one evil man — a man who is admired by an uncomfortable number of Americans. Even now.
Ukraine’s much smaller neighbors like Moldova and Slovakia are taking in tens of thousands of Ukrainians. From 2015 to 2019, Germany took in more than 1.5 million refugees, many of them fleeing Syria’s civil war.
Why don’t refugees from Haiti, Cameroon, El Salvador and Guatemala deserve the same open arms and hearts in America as people from Ukraine?
Why do our hearts not break for them?
Refugees, no matter where they come from, are human beings. Men, women, children.
Some of them just happen to look a little different than we’re comfortable with.
Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. He volunteers with several humanitarian and legal aid organizations at the U.S.-Mexico border.