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Infuriated, not shocked: Philadelphians from the Middle East are noticing that now you care about war in Ukraine | Opinion

A Syrian refugee and Palestinian in Philadelphia hope the Russian invasion to Ukraine will make people care about their people’s suffering.

Moumena Saradar, a refugee from Syria, guiding visitors at the Penn Museum before the pandemic.
Moumena Saradar, a refugee from Syria, guiding visitors at the Penn Museum before the pandemic.Read morePenn Museum

The horrific Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to an outpouring of solidarity with the Ukrainian people. But Ukrainians are not the only people who suffer under oppression. And people from the Middle East, who are used to their plight for justice going ignored, are noticing the difference.

» READ MORE: Russia-Ukraine updates: UN votes to demand Putin withdraw troops; assassination plot against Zelensky foiled, Ukraine says

Moumena Saradar, now 45, was born and raised in Damascus. In 2011, when a brutal civil war started, she was too worried about the safety of her five children to stay. One morning, a sniper started shooting in her neighborhood. “The bullets were just a few feet away from my kids when they were going to school,” she recalled over the phone this week. “We are lucky that they are still alive.”

Her family went to Egypt in 2012. It was hard starting a new life, especially after they left everything back home. They registered as refugees with the United Nations, and were chosen to come to the United States. But her struggle was not over. “It wasn’t easy at all. We were going through one year of interviews with different agents, officers, background checks — but luckily we made it and we came here in summer 2016.”

Philadelphia has been her home ever since. She works as a medical translator and as a part-time Global Guide in the Penn Museum, walking visitors through the Middle East exhibit.

While Saradar waited for refuge, people didn’t talk about Syrian refugees the way they talk about the people leaving Ukraine. On the campaign trail in 2015, Donald Trump suggested Syrian refugees might be terrorists in disguise, and promised, “If I win, they’re going back.” The sentiment wasn’t his alone. By November 2015, governors in 30 states publicly demanded that resettlement of Syrian refugees halt, and the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a resolution — with the not-so-subtle title American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act — to limit the number of refugees from Syria.

Today, the refugee discourse feels completely different. A recent Data for Progress poll found that 63% of voters — including half of Republican voters — believe the United States should accept Ukrainian refugees. When the White House announced that it was prepared to do that, right-wing politicians and media didn’t pounce — as many did just a few months ago, when the refugees the United States was preparing to accept were from Afghanistan.

It’s not just the United States: European countries that have been blocking refugees from the Middle East are now opening their doors.

To be clear: This response is good and correct. The United States and the world should stand with Ukrainians against Vladimir Putin’s war, and that includes opening the doors for refugees. But it’s not by chance that the appetite for solidarity is tied to a European nation.

» READ MORE: Beyond sanctions: Companies, organizations and brands cutting ties with Russia

I asked Saradar if she also noticed a difference between the way people now talk about the pain of people in Ukraine and Syria. She responded unequivocally: “Yes. 100%.”

One reason for the difference, Saradar says, is the way the crisis is covered by the media. And she has a point. Pundits and reporters have drawn a racist contrast between Ukraine and places in the Middle East that suffered war. News viewers have heard that Kyiv is a “civilized city” and that the civilians at risk have “blue eyes and blond hair.” An article in the British newspaper the Telegraph about the war in Ukraine opened with: “They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking. Ukraine is a European country. Its people watch Netflix and have Instagram accounts.”

Jude Hussein, 24, has also noticed the difference. She is a member of the Philadelphia Mayor’s Millennial Advisory Commission who was born in Ramallah, a Palestinian city in the territory of the West Bank that is under Israeli occupation. I asked her how it felt to see an outpouring of support to Ukrainians after the Russian invasion. “It wasn’t shocking, but it was infuriating,” Hussein responded. “The same human-rights violations that are happening now in Ukraine have been happening for decades in Palestine.”

This is a dynamic Hussein has gotten used to. “When Europe is on the line, whether it is a violation of human rights or international law, the world has their eyes wide open and they are willing to act on such violations. But when it comes to the Middle East, and Palestine, especially as brown people, the world always shies away.”

She’s right: Less than a week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Pennsylvania started looking at ways to divest from Russian companies — including removing Russian vodkas from state liquor stores. Gov. Tom Wolf called the removal of Russian products “a show of solidarity and support for the people of Ukraine, and an expression of our collective revulsion with the unprovoked actions of the Russian state.”

This was the same Tom Wolf who in 2016 signed a bill that prevents the state from contracting with businesses that boycott Israel. At the time, the governor said that Pennsylvania “will not encourage economic punishment in place of peaceful solutions to challenging conflicts.”

When a war hurts civilians who “watch Netflix,” a boycott is “a show of solidarity” and an “expression of our collective revulsion.” But a boycott on Israel in response to the treatment of Palestinians is an “economic punishment in place of peaceful solutions,” and thus should be banned.

» READ MORE: If you oppose banning critical race theory, you need to also reconsider another Pa. law | Opinion

You don’t need to support a boycott on Israel to see the double standard.

When I called Saradar and Hussein, I expected anger. But the more we talked, the more they expressed hope.

Hussein said she views the war in Ukraine as a teachable moment. “With acts like this happening in Ukraine, people are more willing to learn, and I hope we come to a place where people stand up to any occupier.” Saradar also told me she believes the current crisis can change how people react in the future.

“I hope, I just pray for everyone that this world will react in solidarity with everyone regardless of their background, religious, ethnicity, or anything,” she said. “Whenever people are suffering, to stand with them. That’s what I pray for.”