For all souls who died on, because of, and since 9/11 …
We build a lot of walls, especially when we are fearful, hateful, angry, and retaliatory.
There are personal walls, our own little “bubbles,” that give us the illusion of safety. Then we have bigger walls. Walls that our governments build. Walls to keep people in, and walls to keep people out.
Current walls that come to mind are the Mexican-US Border Wall – you know, that one that Donald Trump loves – because it keeps all those rapists out. We have the Israeli-West Bank Separation Barrier-which has contributed to the drop of suicide bombing exponentially, but, in the meantime, has cut off Palestinian livelihoods, and led to the death of many who can’t get through the checkpoints in an emergency. Here in the US we have “gated communities” – those communities that give a false sense of security to keep the “degenerates” out. No crime inside those walls, right? Right. We also have prison walls to keep people in. The prison industry is thriving here in the US and more walls need to be put up to incarcerate all the “offenders.” And, now, we have a new wall, just finalized on August 29, in Hungary – a razor wire wall to keep fleeing refugees from Syria, out.
Note I use We when referring to all of these walls; walls that aren’t even in your country, or walls that may not even be on your mind. We have walls.
The personal walls we build transcend to the larger walls we witness, approve of, are normalized – walls that are built to “protect us” are everywhere.
I never realized how walls must feel to those we are trying to keep out until 2008, when I went on a service trip with my church to our sister church in Dominica. The church had a few break-ins, so they asked us to come and build a concrete wall around the church to keep the “bad guys” out.
As we started to build the wall, however, I noted the homes around the church, as well as the people. Obviously in need and obviously hungry, as each cinder block went up, and each house left the view of the grassy, blessed yard, I wondered what the people must have felt, as they were shut out. Excluded. Ignored. Ostracized. Forgotten. “Unsaved.”
In the last few weeks, we’ve seen desperate Syrians trying to cross borders and stopped by human walls, razor fenced walls, and ocean walls. Little Ayman Alkurdi became an internationally known toddler in less than 24 hours as pictures circulated of his lifeless body that had washed ashore in Turkey, and the world wept asking, “How could this happen?”
The world has largely ignored Syria. As ISIS, Assad and rebel forces destroy the country, innocent civilians are caught in the middle. But, this is not new. Syria, a direct byproduct of 9/11, and has been raging for years. Photos have surfaced of thousands waiting for food in Yarmouk, neighborhoods destroyed, and now, recently, ancient and beautiful historical temples are being obliterated. Yet, so are the Syrians. Being obliterated, that is. And not just by Assad or Da’esh. But by us and our walls.
Hundreds of thousands are fleeing Syria as I write this, and thousands have died in the process. Walls have been put up to contribute to these deaths and no one seems to care.
Walls to stop people from reaching safety – I don’t understand this.
I keep coming back to this word as I watch these beautiful, terrified people, run, walk and swim for their freedom and their lives, as they hope for place.
A place to feed their children.
A place with plenty of potable water.
A place where they feel safe and are not dodging bullets, bombs or chemical attacks.
A place where they can live with dignity.
A place where they can sleep through the night and not worry that they may not see the light of day.
These are basic human rights and our walls are denying them these rights.
Today marks 14 years after 9/11. A day that literally changed the world and a day that was a catalyst for Iraq, Afghanistan, “collateral damage,” loss of antiquity, Syria, US military personnel with PTSD and committing suicide every day – so much destruction.
I wonder – how can we build walls of compassion, instead of walls of separation?
How can we offer walls of love, instead of walls of oppression?
Why can we not give walls of hope, instead of walls of despair?
This is not impossible. This simply should be.
I wonder why I even have to posit such questions. Yet, then I realize, we are scared. Humans are scared. We fear everything – dying, living, losing, starving, hurting, crying – we fear.
Fleeing Syrians represent all that we fear. We don’t want to see, feel, ask, or know.
Could it be that fear rules our inability to build walls of compassion? Could it be that to build such walls takes too much work? Could it be that we are just selfish, unkind and so broken, we could care less if any more Ayman Alkurdi’s drown?
What is more important is to imagine what it must feel like to be Syrian and to risk everything, even your children’s lives, to find place. Imagine their walls.
Walls of terror.
Walls of “alien holding centers.”
Walls of trauma.
Walls of insanity.
Walls of indignation.
Walls of drowning.
Walls of pepper spray.
Walls of confusion.
Walls of desperation.
As a mom, a feminist, a pacifist, I do not want to see anymore Ayman Alkurdi’s. I do not want to see any more families torn from each other and thrown on to trains to be sent to camps. I do not want to see any more walls that stop people from gaining what they need. Frankly, I do not want to see any more men dressed in uniform, enforcing the laws of their country, when those laws and walls are keeping others from living.
As I ponder the idea of compassion, I am met with one consistent thought – God is compassion. And if God is indeed compassion, and we are indeed religious human beings, then how are we not living by example? How are we denying the one thing that Syrian refugees need? And taking that further, how can our walls of compassion extend to all the larger walls in the world, real and figurative?
Walls that do not distinguish “the other.” Walls that offer food, jobs, education, housing, faith, medical care, freedom, safety, and a sense of place. Walls of welcome. Walls of acceptance. Walls of tolerance. Walls of coexistence. Walls of grace.
These walls are what will lead us to understand and embrace the utter and undeniable need for walls of compassion.
Karen Hernandez is a Theologian with a focus in Christian-Muslim Understanding, as well as religious fundamentalism and extremism. Karen is the only theologian who is a Latina and a United Methodist, doing this type of theological work in the USA. She has published with several media outlets including Feminism and Religion, the Women’s United Nations Report Network, The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue/Studies, and she is the only Christian to publish an ongoing Op-Ed Column with OnIslam out of Cairo, Egypt. Karen lives in San Francisco, where she is currently designing an Interfaith Dialogue Workshop for Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. She is an Ambassador with Parliament of the World’s Religions, and she also does Domestic Violence Faith Advocacy work across the US.