In light of President Trump’s halting of refugee resettlement (for Syrians indefinitely), actor and activist, Romola Garai, took to the streets of London to protest with thousands of others. Last year Garai spent time visiting refugee camps in Greece. Here, she tells Stylist why she feels it is vital for us to stand up for refugees, and why resettlement is so important.
On Monday night, my husband and I cooked dinner for our children, got them in their pyjamas and chatted about their day. Then we put on our coats and hats and scarfs and told the kids that the sitter was coming to put them to bed as Mummy and Daddy were going out. My daughter, understandably, objected. ‘Why are you going out?’ she asked. ‘It’s important’ I said, not knowing quite what to say, how to describe what was happening in the world, about our family history; how much I should tell her at only four?
So I said the only thing I thought that she would understand. ‘It’s important; because we have to be kind.’
On Saturday, Donald Trump signed an Executive Order preventing people from Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan and Syria from entering the US for 90 days under the auspices of ‘security’. The order also suspended refugee resettlement for 120 days, while the system is reviewed. The President claims that this is not a ‘Muslim’ ban, but the special stipulation that asylum claims be “prioritised on the basis of religious persecution” and the fact that Christianity is the minority religion in said countries makes a nonsense of this claim.
Not a single refugee has carried out a terrorist attack on US soil.
For me, most shocking was the complete suspension of the Syrian refugee programme indefinitely. The US only accepted 15,479 Syrian refugees in 2016, a measly number compared with about 300,000 spontaneous arrivals in Germany, or the millions who have fled to Turkey. The Executive Order assumed that these refugees are potential terrorists. But, in reality, not a single refugee has carried out a terrorist attack on US soil. Rather, these are the very people who are fleeing terror and war, destruction and groups like ISIS.
Last year, with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), I visited the Greek island of Lesbos to meet refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria. I met a girl, Nafeen, whose Damascus home had been bombed, forcing her family to flee the country along with around 4.8 million other men, women and children. They are all now in the limbo of the dispossessed, homeless in camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, hiding in woods in Macedonia, living under snowy tarpaulins in Greece.
I got out my passport and looked at it. I wondered what it means to be a citizen of Britain.
Nafeen had seen her home, her livelihood, her community and her future destroyed in one of the most vicious wars raging in the world today. A war in which Chlorine and Sarin gas attacks had already cost the lives of hundreds of children. When she talked of her future she smiled and spoke of the mercy of strangers, but her hands twisted, tight and restless in her lap. We both knew that Britain and its people didn’t want her. She had, even in her short life, encountered horrors that I prayed to any God there might be in the universe, would never befall my children. Horrors that no person in this country could stomach if they were forced to sit across from her – as I did - and say to her face ‘there’s no room at the inn.’
Today, I got out my passport and looked at it. I wondered at it, about what it means to be a citizen of Britain. Because I fear that this place I call home, with all the privileges of peace and education and healthcare (however strained) that we enjoy, has become a place that allowed Trump and the swathes of American people who support him to see Brexit and think, now it’s our turn.
Brexit employs the language of fear and discrimination against the world’s poorest and most vulnerable just as Trump is doing now. When Nigel Farage stood in front of a poster of exhausted Syrians fleeing persecution, and used it to push the Brexit agenda, it became acceptable for people to blame their dissatisfaction with our social services on the persecuted, humiliated and traumatised Syrian people.
This is wrong. It is the deepest, profoundest wrong; it is everything that we teach our children not to be. It is unkind.
Trump announced this ban on Holocaust Memorial Day. A day when I think about my family in Budapest in 1944 when the tanks rolled into the city and the Nazi roundup began. My family were Jewish refugees so attacks on refugees hit me particularly hard. But it could have been any of us on those boats crossing those inky waters to Europe and praying, praying that you wouldn’t die under those bombs; that it wouldn’t be your child as their lungs fill up with poisoned gas.
We must stand up and show that this is not what we stand for, these are not our values.
And in these last few weeks and months when talk of ‘immigration’ and ‘legitimate fears’ and ‘taking control’ have become a way for British and American people to express their disillusionment I would ask you; at what cost, your freedom? At what price, your liberty? For the American ban on Syrian refugees is going to cost the future, perhaps even the lives of people who have never harmed you or your family or your country and never would. And Brexit is forcing us into the arms of the man who ordered it.
So we cannot afford to sit back and watch it unfold.
We may feel helpless under the enormity of it all but we must stand up and show that this is not what we stand for, these are not our values. Though the events are unfolding in America, British citizens have shown their outrage through the women’s march, and at protests around the country this week. We must have our voices heard; sign the petitions, attend the marches, give to organisations who are working to combat the scourge of this narrative.
Tonight I was at home to read my daughter her promised story. And, as I do most nights, I thought about the tremendous work it takes to make a good person. The care and teaching and patience, the endless work of it. ‘Don’t hit’, ‘don’t bite’, ‘gentle hands’, ‘be kind’. It doesn’t come naturally, it takes time, a whole childhood. It takes so long to make kindness but, perhaps for the first time I wondered; how long does it take to forget it?
Romola Garai is a supporter of the International Rescue Committee which works with refugees and displaced people in 40 countries around the world, and resettles refugees to the USA. To learn more or support their work please visit: Rescue-uk.org/Refugees