The Spectrum: In defense of refugees, reflections on the Paris attacks

Carson Brown, Op-Ed Contributor

This essay is part of The Spectrum, a weekly forum in our Opinion section for marginalized voices to share their perspectives. To submit a piece for The Spectrum or discuss story ideas, please email [email protected].

I studied abroad in France partly because my family thought it wouldn’t be safe for me to study in Morocco. Discussing it on the phone with my mom, Morocco was a stern “no” which almost made me more determined to go, but I could never convince myself that Paris would be a bad alternative to my first choice. I had the same argument for her then that I have now: terror exists everywhere. Who is to say that I wouldn’t get into the same serious trouble in Europe that I could in North Africa? Our own family is West African.

Later that year, I found myself in my bedroom after dark one night, staring out at the lights of the Parisian skyline, waiting anxiously for my best friend to get home. The irony of a seemingly undisturbed starry night was not lost on me. Somewhere, nearby, gunshots rang out. Our roommates were scowling, and the entire apartment was tense. A handful of blocks away from our home in the 10th arrondissement, bullets shot mercilessly into restaurants and music venues. Just outside town, soccer spectators fled the stadium in fear. Northwestern students spent most of the night tracking each other down. Meanwhile, our Facebook feeds flooded with early political commentary. I felt sick. We all did. I cried that night, but for days after I spent most of my time in bed. Nothing felt real enough to cry over. I simply existed.

A year after the attacks, my mind still lingers on the consequences of that time. Study abroad added nuance to my understanding of contemporary social and political issues, but I can’t say that it changed my views. If anything, it crammed a new urgency into my support for sanctuary cities and public education that values meaningful diversity. After the attacks, I quickly learned not to cover my hair with a scarf. My Muslim friends felt eyes follow them on the train. Amid the beauty of a city coming together, paranoia took root. Just as much victims of the attacks as our neighbors, brown and black Parisians felt an added peril walking through the city streets that our white neighbors did not. The time after the attacks was a striking lesson in the power of othering. Since then, France has made headlines over and over for attempting to ban signifiers of Islam, markers of otherness.

Now, in America, we’re wrestling with Trump’s ban on refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries, to keep out “radical Islamic terrorists.” But narrowing the definition of who is allowed to live within our borders through travel bans, or breeding fear based on religion, nationality or citizenship status, does not meaningfully improve safety. It may in fact do the opposite. If you fear deportation, how likely are you to interact with the police for the most basic of services, like reporting a crime? The laws we’re trying to institute will do nothing to stop these attacks. Instead they will make our country less safe and, in fact, go against everything that makes America exceptional: its founding principles that we have yet to live up to.

To say that immigrants from the Middle East pose a unique threat erases both the truth of why foreign-born peoples choose to settle on our shores and the prevalence of domestic terrorism in America, which makes the news with unsettling frequency. In 2015, there were 78 attacks on American mosques; I live fearing for my Muslim family’s safety, lest they be murdered in the midst of prayer. Immigrants in the U.S. exist at the intersection of so many violently targeted identities, but they seek shelter here anyway. Pulse? Charleston? The prevailing narrative that safety exists on America’s shores is a narrative that only rings true for a narrow segment of society.

The American public’s fear of foreign terrorism drives harmful ideologies that become harmful practices, so we instituted a ban that only reinforces the narrative our enemies are telling: “America Hates Islam.” Our narrative of hate betrays our ignorance. It’s almost as if we’ve forgotten, or never learned in the first place, that Muslim people have been here since before the founding fathers, and that American history is intimately intertwined with Muslim identity. If we forget both humility and history, we enable our leaders to pursue dangerous policies that harm the vulnerable and dismiss the very values that have the power to make this place “great.”

There’s an image from study abroad that still haunts me. I saw a fading, neglected mural high up on some aging building. Modern life churned vibrantly below, while the mural portrayed a colonial depiction of the old empire: a black slave in full caricature catering to a French colonizer. I took a photo, fought to hold my composure and swiftly moved on. I still have the picture. It reminds me of the racial and cultural tensions that always exist below the surface.

The violences we deal with today are the direct descendents of the violences that mural depicts. It is all too easy on our sheltered campus to forget the acute impact colonial histories continue to have on so many people in the world, including people right here on campus. As we address these issues moving forward, let us not forget the role our society has played in destroying communities across the globe because to be largely unaffected by dangerous systemic inequalities is to be comfortable letting suffering continue.

Carson Brown is a Medill Senior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.