Angry, not shocked: Middle Easterners realize they care now about the war in Ukraine

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The horrific Russian invasion of Ukraine has sparked a wave of solidarity with the Ukrainian people. But Ukrainians are not the only people suffering oppression. And Middle Easterners, used to their plight being ignored, are noticing the difference.

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Moumena Saradar, now 45, was born and raised in Damascus. When a brutal civil war broke out in 2011, she was too concerned for the safety of her five children to stay. One morning a sniper started shooting in their neighborhood. “The bullets were yards from my kids as they walked to school,” she recalled over the phone this week. “We’re lucky they’re still alive.”

Her family went to Egypt in 2012. It was hard to start a new life, especially after leaving everything at home. They registered with the United Nations as refugees and were selected to come to the United States. But their fight wasn’t over yet. “It wasn’t easy at all. We spent a year conducting interviews with various agents, officials and background checks – but luckily we made it and got here in the summer of 2016.”

Philadelphia has been her home ever since. She works as a medical translator and part-time global guide at the Penn Museum, guiding visitors through the Middle East exhibit.

While Saradar was waiting for refuge, Syrian refugees were not talked about like people leaving Ukraine. During the 2015 election campaign, Donald Trump hinted that Syrian refugees could be terrorists in disguise, promising, “If I win, they’ll come back.” The feeling wasn’t his only one. By November 2015, governors in 30 states publicly called for a halt to the resettlement of Syrian refugees, and the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a resolution – not-so-subtly titled the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act – to limit the number of refugees fleeing Syria Syria.

Today, the refugee discourse feels very different. A recent Data for Progress poll found that 63% of voters — including half of Republican voters — believe the United States should take in Ukrainian refugees. When the White House announced its willingness to do so, right-wing politicians and the media did not react – like many did a few months ago when the USA wanted to take in refugees from Afghanistan.

It’s not just the United States: European countries that have blocked Middle Eastern refugees are now opening their doors.

To be clear: this answer is good and correct. The United States and the world should stand with the Ukrainians against Vladimir Putin’s war, and that includes opening the doors to refugees. But it is no coincidence that the appetite for solidarity is associated with one European nation.

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I asked Saradar if she also noticed a difference between the way people now talk about the pain of the people of Ukraine and Syria. She answered unequivocally: “Yes. 100%.”

One reason for the difference, says Saradar, is media coverage of the crisis. And she’s right. Experts and reporters drew a racial contrast between Ukraine and places in the Middle East that have suffered from war. News viewers have heard that Kyiv is a “civilized city” and that the civilians at risk have “blue eyes and blond hair”. An article in the British newspaper the Telegraph opened about the war in Ukraine with: “You seem so similar to us. That’s what makes it so shocking. Ukraine is a European country. His people watch Netflix and have Instagram accounts.”

Jude Hussein, 24, also noticed the difference. She is a member of the Mayor of Philadelphia’s Millennial Advisory Commission and was born in Ramallah, a Palestinian city in the West Bank under Israeli occupation. I asked her how it felt to see a surge of support for Ukrainians after the Russian invasion. “It wasn’t shocking, but it was infuriating,” Hussein replied. “The same human rights violations that are happening now in Ukraine have been happening in Palestine for decades.”

Hussein has become accustomed to this dynamic. “When Europe is at stake, be it a violation of human rights or international law, the world has eyes wide open and ready to respond to such violations. But when it comes to the Middle East and Palestine, especially as brown people, the world always recoils.”

She’s right: Less than a week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Pennsylvania began looking at ways to divest itself of Russian companies — including removing Russian vodkas from state-owned liquor stores. Gov. Tom Wolf called the removal of Russian products “a show of solidarity and support for the people of Ukraine and an expression of our collective dislike for the unprovoked actions of the Russian state.”

This was the same Tom Wolf who signed legislation in 2016 barring the state from entering into contracts with companies that boycott Israel. At the time, the governor said that Pennsylvania “will not promote economic punishment in lieu of peaceful resolutions to challenging conflicts.”

When a war hurts civilians “watching Netflix,” a boycott is “a show of solidarity” and an “expression of our collective disgust.” But boycotting Israel in response to the treatment of Palestinians is “economic punishment rather than peaceful solutions” and should therefore be banned.

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You don’t have to support a boycott of Israel to see the double standard.

When I called Saradar and Hussein, I expected trouble. But the more we spoke, the more they expressed their hope.

Hussein said she sees the war in Ukraine as a teachable moment. “With acts like this in Ukraine, people are more willing to learn, and I hope we get to a place where people will stand up against any occupier.” Saradar also told me that she believes the current crisis is the people’s reaction in the future may change.

“I hope, I just pray for everyone, that this world responds in solidarity with everyone, regardless of their background, religion, ethnicity or anything else,” she said. “Whenever people are suffering, stand by them. I pray for that.”

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