Gawoon Shim, South Korea, Cheongshim International Academy, 11th Grade, 2nd Place Winner.
Empty glass bottles flew towards him. A few blows at his sides, then at his face. Yelling out in pain, he desperately cried out for help in stammering Chinese. Yet no one came to his rescue. He was, after all, the purported cause of all accidents in the village – broken windows, kidnapped children, robbed jewelry, etc. Eating weird dishes, speaking a weird language, and keeping weird traditions, he stood out from the rest of the crowd – he was suspicious. It was 1951, China. Mr. Yang had fled to China from the Korean War along with thousands of other war refugees. In 2008, however, the situation went the other way around. Chinese who had lost everything in the Sichuan earthquake poured into Korea. These people, as Mr. Yang had been, were met with taunts and jeers. In a refugee center in Gwangmyeong, Seoul, I met Mingming, a twelve-year-old girl who had arrived in Korea with her parents and two brothers. Eyes full of resent, she told me of the harsh reality of an unwelcome refugee that she had to face in the proud single-race nation – the incident that motivated me to write this essay.
“Single-race nation”. Koreans are indeed proud of this title. We are a pure race, not adulterated by those of other ethnicities. With a history of 5,000 years, Koreans have developed its own unique traditions and culture that stems from such homogeneity and lasts until this day. Unity among those of the same ethnicity, using the same language, and living according to same rules has powerful effects. Often have I seen Koreans who have seen each other for the first time laughing and cracking jokes as if they had been friends for their entire lives. Such groups are exclusive, tightly bonded by a brotherly-feeling that ensues from the fact that they are “of the same blood”. It is for this same reason that foreigners – especially refugees – are met with disapproving glances. It is true that they do consume a considerable deal of governmental budget, occasionally commit larceny, and engage in conflicts with Koreans. But beneath such pretexts lies a bigger, more profound reason for the discontent: their presence threaten Korea’s national and cultural unity.
In the 21st century, issues regarding refugees and the cultural conflicts continue to exist. One of the most serious refugee issues to be solved today is that of Syria. The Syrian civil war, the Syrian version of “Arab spring” which was instigated in March 15, 2011, is an armed conflict between the Ba’ath government under President Bashar al-Assad and the Free Syrian army – those who wish to expel it from office. As the anti-governmental forces are gaining power with military support from Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, France, and recently United States of America, the nation is embroiled in a worse turmoil; the conflict never seems to be able to come to an end. With both armed forces severely abrogating human rights by utilizing torture and threats without restraint, countless Syrians are fleeing from their homeland. Refugees spill into adjacent nations, such as Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Today, the number of only registered refugees reach 341,202 worldwide (UN speculates the number has long since reached 1.2 million if counting those unregistered), with 114,944 in Turkey, 88,027 in Jordan, and 87,021 in Lebanon.
Yet just like Mingming in Korea, the Syrians are given a cold shoulder. And just like the Korean society, its neighboring nations have economic and political reasons for such aloofness. Developing countries themselves, Syria’s neighbors need to bear with sky high costs to accept refugees. In Jordan, refugees pile up in Bekka Valley, one of the most devastated districts. Worried enough with its own budget which is highly dependent from US aids, the economic impact of the Syrian refugee crisis is rather hard for the already suffering nation to cope with. In August, together with the UNHCR, Jordan made an urgent appeal for $429 million, revising this to $700 million within a week. Other countries have a similar fate: despite USA’s promise of $100 million aid for saving Syrian refugees, many are reluctant to make the benevolent act. Turkish officials, on the other hand, are anxious about politics. Worries arise that Syrian activists in Reyhanli and Apaydin, the home to the leadership of FSA, may cause political turmoil. Pressure on the local indigenous population leave the government in a tight spot between addressing the needs of the refugees and fulfilling its duty for its own citizens. Antakya’s mayor, Lutfu Savas, has eventually forced Syrian families out of his province. Other countries with Syrian refugees are also suffering from various predicaments.
But such secular problems are not the only causes of conflicts. In fact, they are rather minor issues compared to a more momentous issue lurking in the dark, yet not publicly pronounced: cultural conflicts. Mahmoud Mohammed, a Syrian refugee, states that life at the refugee camp was hard to bear due to the either condescending or hostile attitude of the native workers. Religious differences exacerbate the issue. A group of Turkish Shias related to the ruling Alawites in Syria demonstrated against accepting Syrian refugees into their society. Ali Yilmaz Cecim, one of the Shias who participated in the demonstration, said “They [the Turkish Sunnis] are taking sides with foreigners [Syrian refugees] against fellow Turkish citizens[…]. The people who want to bring them in are doing so because they will help to push their own extremist religious views here; they want to build up numbers.” It isn’t only religious issues that spark conflicts here; “dislike of the unlike”, a term we have seen in hatred for the Jews, appear once again. “Those people who are coming here with strange long beards, strange looks […] they are not from here,” Sakucoglu said. “They walk around with their long beards looking like al-Qaeda.” said another: Olgun, an Alawi doctor.
Cultural conflicts such as those mentioned above can invoke feelings of irrational but considerably powerful animosity. The case had been seen a few thousand years ago for a particular group of people: the Jews. Constantly moving from this community to another, the Jews had been ousted from its asylums due to its excessive obsession of its native culture. “Those chosen by God”, they called themselves, insisting their traditions to the degree of arousing a sense of disharmony in their hosts. Such incompatibility eventually led to continuous exiles and wandering until they settled down in Israel. History is repeating itself now in the 21st century. Syrian refugees adhere to their cultures and lifestyles; their hosts view this with a disapproving glance. For the hosts, disparate cultural differences suddenly spilling into their society make the comfortable society they inhabited, with fixed values and fixed rule of conduct, unstable. They fear that the external influences that came along with those strangers may undermine the national unity which had been kept intact for so long. Consequently, that unity is maintained by strong reactions against those who are “different” – and refugees are no exception.
But unity stemming from a long history of homogeneity or unique culture is an illusion. Just a brief look into world history will easily disillusion one from such deceptive images. Each country has been formed through centuries of invasions and colonization, each time involving great numbers of foreigners and external influence. Culture formed as foreign values, studies, and language intermingled with those of the indigenous. Prominent civilizations extolled for their prominence were all the result of such interactions: the Roman Empire, the Ming Dynasty, the Muslim world, etc. In other words, strangers who we condemn of threatening our cultural unity are the ones who built that very culture we are so determined to protect. Foreigners, including refugees, had been one of the founding members of the values and traditions we have today, synergizing with the local population to form a more diverse, rich culture. Unity, therefore, is not what arises as an exclusive group of people adamantly adhere to a particular set of rules and culture. It is what results as a community embraces new members as well as their influence.
Pragmatic concerns also account for the need of cultural assimilation. It may sound harsh, but the refugees are unwelcome visitors living on the kindness of strangers. Building refugee camps, providing necessities, risking domestic political conflicts, pacifying chauvinistic demonstrations, and many other costs are to be borne by the host country. As guests, refugees should at least show respect for the host country’s culture by acceding to it in some ways of life. It is a matter of manners rather than cultural identities. Pronouncing differences with heads held up high is not a clever act if they are the ones asking for help; the host may decide to ask them to leave if conflicts become too serious. At the same time, this doesn’t mean the host country should thrust its chin in the air in a condescending way. Regardless of any other circumstances, the guests have already arrived. It would be wise to try to understand them, although they may seem to rather peculiar, to be on good terms with them until they leave. Streets riddled with bullets and murder happening every other day as results of cultural conflicts would never be the ideal state of a nation. Host countries should also remember that receiving refugees also a method of prevention for future calamities. We live in a rapidly changing world. Next time, it may be your country that is desperately sending refugees overseas. When that time comes, Jordan or Turkey may be the ones pleading Syria to take their refugees. “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” would be a good advice – accepting and respecting the cultural differences of refugees.
There is one solution in large for this complex issue of refugees: refugees’ increased participation in society. If the refugees are to live in complete seclusion, it is almost natural for citizens of the host nations to feel intimidated when they stumble upon these people – a totally unknown group. Refugees, frustrated by their new environment, will gather in exclusive groups for comfort. Such behavior on both sides will exacerbate the issue – people tend to fear the unknown. We need to provide both sides with opportunities to actually meet and socialize with their counterparts. Education for the refugees is the first step towards peaceful coexistence by making it much easier for the newcomers to adapt. Language classes allow the refugees to feel more comfortable by ameliorating communicational problems, and culture classes inform them the characteristics of their new society. Teaching technology or engineering that will aid refugees get jobs in society will also help them. Social gatherings in which both refugees and natives can participate, such as singing contests or sports meetings, should be actively aided by the government. Loosening the policies that prevent refugees from participating in the local society is another mandatory change to be made. Currently, Syrian refugees are firmly restricted from moving to other places other than their camps and job opportunities are nearly non-existent due to security issues. This not only goes against the rights of refugees which ensure them to choose their place of residence and to practice a profession, but also eradicates the opportunity of refugees to become a part of society. Through all ways possible, we should help the two groups meet, understand, and eventually accept each other.
We call the 21st century to come a globalized era. But with countless changes are happening rapidly, we are still in the transition period. Refugee issues and cultural conflicts that ensue are some of the new conditions that we have to adapt to. Along with the changes in circumstances, we must also make adequate changes to our definitions of certain terms. Cultural unity does not derive from absolute homogeneity. It comes from embracing differences and successfully merging them into a congruous, “united” one.
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