Ukraine tragedy reveals what we already knew: not all lives are treated equally
Rocket attacks. Bombs falling from the sky.
Residential buildings, hospitals, roads, all going up in flames.
Unexploded missiles resting near a kindergarten playground.
Mass evacuations. Oversaturated highways, buses, trains.
Fleeing on foot as snow falls when no other option is available.
Sick babies being cared for in makeshift bomb shelters.
Tearful goodbyes as families are ripped apart.
By now, most of us in the West have seen the sobering, heartbreaking images coming out of Ukraine.
Through no fault of their own, millions of Ukrainians are confronted with the devastating choice to either risk their lives by staying home, or to flee to neighboring cities or countries in search of safety. In less than two weeks, the number of Ukrainians fleeing the war to nearby countries has reached 2.2 million.
Thankfully, the world is starting to pay attention to their plight. We have seen an enormous outpouring of generosity from people across the globe. Countless fundraisers have been launched. German volunteers have shown up at train stations in Berlin equipped with food, water, medical supplies, and offers to temporarily house arriving Ukrainian refugees. Polish parents even donated their strollers to Ukrainian mothers who may need them when they arrive in Poland with young children. The compassion shown by complete strangers to those living in Ukraine — most of whom fled with little to no belongings — has been truly inspiring.
At the same time, it’s a stark contrast to the experience of refugees in other parts of the world — refugees who, let’s face it, often have darker skin tones than Ukrainians.
When hundreds of thousands of Afghans were fleeing the Taliban, fearful of violent retaliation, amputations and public executions by hanging or stoning, where was the global fanfare and warm welcome for them?
When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad committed mass atrocities including chemical attacks, torture, extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances, how many countries immediately opened their doors without reserve to Syrian refugees?
When Yemen descended into civil war, creating one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world resulting in millions of Yemeni civilians starving to death, how many communities mobilized to send food?
Sure, these topics were briefly covered in the news if you were paying close attention. However, the public outcry was nowhere near what we are seeing for Ukrainian refugees.
It’s not limited to refugees coming from the Middle East, either. We could also talk about Venezuela. South Sudan. Myanmar. Somalia. And let’s be honest, they all share one common characteristic: they are all black and brown-skinned people. All too often, racism and xenophobia go hand-in-hand.
In Ukraine, there have already been reports of third country nationals, including migrant workers and students, facing discrimination, violence and xenophobia due to their skin color as they attempt to flee the conflict and seek refuge in neighboring countries.
It’s not unfair to say that refugees and migrants — especially those with dark skin — are generally treated with disdain, suspicion and fear. Politicians purposefully use terminology designed to incite anger and tension among their constituents in an attempt to vilify entire populations by “othering” them. It occurs all around us in a million different ways, every single day. The first step is to simply recognize that it’s happening.
Words matter. Calling someone an “illegal alien” instead of an “undocumented/irregular migrant” serves to dehumanize them, making it easier to strip away their humanity and all of the basic human rights that are supposed to go along with it. Regardless of immigration or asylum status, at the end of the day, we’re still talking about a human being — each with his or her own history, family, traumas, hopes and dreams. Just like you and me, only they were not fortunate enough to be born into our same circumstances.
All people suffering from these abhorrent situations deserve compassion, regardless of their nationality, gender, religion, or skin tone. All these terrible situations deserve our equal concern. Once we recognize the “othering” that happens all too frequently in our society, it’s our collective responsibility to actively push back against it. It does not need to be an “us versus them” mentality, implying life is a competition and there can only be one winner and one loser. There is always, always a middle ground to be found. It’s up to each of us — each person, neighborhood, city, country, region — to adapt, to find solutions. At the very least, we can show compassion.
Comparing the crisis in Yemen to the ongoing situation in Ukraine, UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie said earlier this week, “If we learn anything from this shocking situation, it is that we cannot be selective about who deserves support and whose rights we defend. The lives of civilian victims of conflict everywhere are of equal value.”
Equal value. It can be difficult to imagine ourselves in the same shoes as someone who has a different skin color, religion or worldview — but whether it’s an Afghan teenager or a Venezuelan mother, their lives are of equal value. It’s time we start paying more attention.