Ukraine War Reminds Refugees Some Are More Equal Than Others

7 March, 2022
Cit­i­zens of the Syr­i­an town of Kafran­bel march for Ukrain­ian sol­i­dar­i­ty (pho­to cour­tesy Ayham Alfares).


Anna Lekas Miller


As soon as Putin’s army launched a ground inva­sion into Ukraine, the world’s war weary start­ed hav­ing flashbacks.

“I can’t stop think­ing about 2006,” a Lebanese friend texted me, remem­ber­ing the sound of Israel war­planes car­pet bomb­ing Beirut — although I was just a Lebanese-Amer­i­can teenag­er in Cal­i­for­nia at the time, I remem­ber the sur­re­al feel­ing of being in a coun­try at peace while a coun­try that was close to my heart was at war. A Bosn­ian friend post­ed on Insta­gram that the images com­ing out of Ukraine made her think of Sara­je­vo. Syr­i­an activists from Kafran­bel, a vil­lage that has been pum­meled by Russ­ian airstrikes since 2015, were some of the first to pub­licly show their sol­i­dar­i­ty through post­ing one of their trade­mark ban­ners on social media. “Ukran­ian broth­ers! Don’t sur­ren­der to the sav­age Rus­sians. Keep going on, depend on your­selves and nev­er rely on the inter­na­tion­al community.”

As a jour­nal­ist who cov­ered the after­math of the Syr­i­an rev­o­lu­tion — and once had the hon­or of inter­view­ing Raed Fares, the ring­leader of the Kafran­bel artists and activists design­ing posters to broad­cast the Syr­i­an strug­gle for free­dom to the world before he was assas­si­nat­ed, I know that if any­one knows the wrath of Putin it is the Syr­i­an activists of Kafranbel. 

But soon, some­thing else start­ed hap­pen­ing. First, Ire­land waived visa require­ments for any Ukra­ni­ans flee­ing the war — then Poland, then the oth­er coun­tries bor­der­ing Ukraine began wel­com­ing refugees, and now more than a mil­lion Ukraini­ans are dis­placed — while refugees from Syr­ia and parts of Africa are still wait­ing for such red car­pet treat­ment in Europe.

I want­ed to feel relieved, yet I couldn’t help but won­der what it would have been like if Syr­i­ans — or Iraqis, Afghans, and any of the numer­ous oth­er nation­al­i­ties who crossed the Mediter­ranean Sea on rafts and leaky boats — had been able to do the same. How many lives would have been saved? I thought about the peo­ple I met who made the jour­ney in 2015, and hoped that they would be able to spon­sor their fam­i­lies to join them safely.

I thought about anoth­er trip I made to the Greek islands in 2016, when I met peo­ple who got sick of wait­ing on a bro­ken bureau­cra­cy to see their fam­i­lies, and decid­ed to fol­low in their foot­steps, and risk the sea cross­ing instead. When the bor­ders closed — mak­ing reunit­ing with their fam­i­lies impos­si­ble — they remained strand­ed in aban­doned hotels in Athens, for months on end. Angela Merkel might have sus­pend­ed the Dublin Reg­u­la­tion in 2015, mak­ing it pos­si­ble to apply for asy­lum in Ger­many with­out wor­ry­ing about being sent to anoth­er EU coun­try, but she still made sure that peo­ple had to almost die in order to get there.

I remind myself that this moment is about Ukraine — not about Syr­ia, and what­ev­er way civil­ians can shel­ter from airstrikes or cross bor­ders is a vic­to­ry. As Poland and Hun­gary opened their bor­ders to refugees, I tried not to think about how just a few months ago, dozens of Afghan refugees were trapped at the Poland-Belarus bor­der, their teeth chat­ter­ing as they faced freez­ing tem­per­a­tures in the remote for­est, or that one time that Hun­gary built a wall, and a jour­nal­ist tripped a refugee who was run­ning across the border.

But then, as Rus­sia bombed Ukraine, a jour­nal­ist made it impos­si­ble to look away. “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen con­flict rag­ing for decades,” said CBS News senior for­eign cor­re­spon­dent Char­lie D’Agata, report­ing live as Ukraini­ans streamed toward the bor­der. “This is a rel­a­tive­ly civ­i­lized, rel­a­tive­ly Euro­pean — I have to choose those words care­ful­ly, too — city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.”

What hap­pens when you do not choose your words care­ful­ly? We did not have to wait long to find out. “It is very emo­tion­al for me because I see Euro­pean peo­ple with blue eyes and blond hair…being killed every day,” said the for­mer Deputy Pros­e­cu­tor Gen­er­al of Ukraine to the BBC. French jour­nal­ist Phillipe Cor­bé went on to tell the pub­lic, “We’re not talk­ing here about Syr­i­ans flee­ing the bomb­ing of the Syr­i­an regime backed by Putin. We’re talk­ing about Euro­peans leav­ing in cars that look like ours to save their lives.”

Lat­er we learned that Ukra­ni­ans are “just like us” — they use Insta­gram and watch Net­flix, nei­ther of which, as every one of us knows, has ever been done in the sav­age Mid­dle East. A con­tribut­ing edi­tor to the Spec­ta­tor waxed elo­quent­ly about how the Ukran­ian inva­sion is the first social media war, mak­ing those of us who watched the Arab Spring, the Syr­i­an rev­o­lu­tion, the Libyan civ­il war, and the Tal­iban takeover of Afghanistan unfurl over the Inter­net won­der if these tragedies had all been in our heads.

A few days lat­er, the Euro­pean Union waived the 90-day lim­it on a tourist visa for all Ukraini­ans, announc­ing that any Ukrain­ian nation­al flee­ing the war could stay for up to three years before apply­ing for asy­lum. While the Unit­ed States has not yet indi­cat­ed that they will go out of their way to wel­come refugees, the Biden admin­is­tra­tion did extend Tem­po­rary Pro­tec­tion Sta­tus (TPS) to Ukraini­ans cur­rent­ly liv­ing in the Unit­ed States — a process, which immi­gra­tion advo­cates who have been fight­ing for the same for cit­i­zens of coun­tries like Cameroon, Eritrea and the Cen­tral African Repub­lic say nor­mal­ly takes years.

Oth­er dou­ble stan­dards crys­tal­ized over the next few days as well. As dozens of jour­nal­ists open­ly con­demned Putin’s aggres­sion, I couldn’t help but think about the Pales­tin­ian jour­nal­ists work­ing in the West who have to bite their tongues every time Israel bombs Gaza. Scrolling through Insta­gram, I saw dozens of small busi­ness­es adver­tis­ing that pro­ceeds from their sales went to the Ukrain­ian resis­tance — and remem­bered how any­one doing the same for the Free Syr­i­an Army wouldn’t be sur­prised to find them­selves on an FBI watch­list. Per­haps most dis­turb­ing were the untold num­bers of British civil­ians proud­ly trav­el­ing to join the Ukrain­ian resis­tance — a cause which, while noble, is not their own. It reminds me of the British-Mus­lim human­i­tar­i­an work­ers who trav­eled to Syr­ia to respond to the human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis, only to be accused of ter­ror­ism, and have their UK cit­i­zen­ship revoked.

It is already dif­fi­cult for any­one to process a cri­sis of this mag­ni­tude. Every image trig­gers a mem­o­ry for those who have lived through wars, or a worst case sce­nario for those who have not. Jour­nal­ists on the ground are doing a mag­nif­i­cent job of show­ing the real­i­ties of war — from chil­dren flee­ing with their pets to lovers curled up around each oth­er in metro sta­tions that have become bomb shel­ters, to grand­moth­ers sling­ing home­made Molo­tov cock­tails. Many of these images are jour­nal­ism at its best, allow­ing us to imag­ine what it would be like if we were the ones who were drink­ing whiskey in the metro sta­tion while the bombs fell or lin­ing up to board the next bus out.

Still, I won­der what might have hap­pened if the today’s Ukraine observers had seen them­selves in the same way in sto­ries com­ing out of Syr­ia — a coun­try that is only 1,200 miles away and has been blud­geoned by the same pow­er-hun­gry tyrant. Would more than half of the country’s pop­u­la­tion still be dis­placed? I thought about the dozens of Syr­i­an and Iraqi friends of mine who took the boat in 2015, how they pur­chased life­jack­ets from sea­side towns in Turkey and then act­ed like they were tour­ing Europe by day while they snuck across the alleged­ly open bor­ders of the Euro­pean Union by night. What would it have been like if they had been able to take planes instead? I won­dered how dif­fer­ent things might have turned out the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty come togeth­er, felt their pain, and extend­ed their solidarity.

Might they still have a coun­try to go back to?

What about Pales­tine? Iron­i­cal­ly, a pic­ture of Pales­tin­ian teenag­er Ahed Tami­mi stand­ing up to an IDF sol­dier is cir­cu­lat­ing on Tik­Tok with a blue and yel­low heart embla­zoned over it, and the hash­tag #Stand­WithUkraine print­ed below. But at the moment that this pic­ture was tak­en, Ahed Tami­mi was being paint­ed in the media as a six­teen-year-old ter­ror­ist and lat­er tried and con­vict­ed in a mil­i­tary court, even though she was a minor. She earned her high school diplo­ma behind bars.

It is easy to lick our wounds — to post pic­tures of our­selves on social media cap­tioned “unciv­i­lized” and won­der if we will ever live in a world where the same sol­i­dar­i­ty extend­ed to Ukraini­ans resist­ing Russ­ian forces will be extend­ed to the rest of the world. The hard work is in imag­in­ing and mak­ing real­i­ty a world in which all refugees would be treat­ed equal­ly and we would all be able to freely cross bor­ders when our lives depend­ed on it.

We would under­stand that the only dif­fer­ence between a fam­i­ly that has to flee their coun­try and those able to stay put is the dumb luck of where they hap­pened to be born, and that at any minute this luck could be inversed. We would show sol­i­dar­i­ty and sup­port, and make sure that no one with­out a home­land was ever with­out a home.

I hope that some­day we could all be so civilized.


immigrationrefugeesSyriaUkrainevisa requirements

Anna Lekas Miller is a writer and journalist who is fascinated by the way that borders shape our world. Her work has appeared in Newlines Magazine, The Intercept, CNN, The Nation and several other publications.She is working on her first book, Love in the Time of Borders, which will be published by Hachette Book Group in June 2023. Find her on Twitter @agoodcuppa and Instagram @annalekasmiller.