Editor’s Note: Arwa Damon is CNN’s award-winning senior international correspondent usually based in Istanbul and President and co-founder of the charity INARA. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
I see parallel images in the floods of humanity coming toward me. One is happening in front of my eyes on the Ukraine-Poland border; large hands clutching little ones, tiny heads resting on weary shoulders, the constant hum of rolling suitcases. I see faces frozen in shock, etched with lines of trauma that will never fully fade. Their eyes glazed over in sheer disbelief, minds unable to comprehend the lives they have left behind.
The other image has superimposed itself in my psyche, created by the torrent of memories from covering the 2015 refugee crisis. Back then, crowds crushed against concertina wire on the Greece-Macedonia border. A mother cradled her baby under a plastic tarp in the pouring rain, a father held up his listless feverish little girl saying, “look at her, look at her state, in Syria she was a princess.”
Today it feels like the world has woken up and finally realized how ruthless and murderous the Russian government is. As if for years Syrians were not dying under the same Russian bombs. As if countless Syrian voices were not begging the world to help them. At the time, they asked me, “why doesn’t the world care about us?” But I could never answer the question without crushing them even more. How do you tell someone their life is not part of a geopolitical calculus, that in the grand scheme of the puppet masters their life is not worth all that much?
We are painfully seeing that refugees are selectively welcomed, and war criminals are selectively punished. It’s not just the western media that is biased; it’s the western world.
I hear it in the rhetoric coming out of from politicians, journalists and global leaders. Rhetoric about how Ukrainians are a “prosperous middle-class people,” “the family next door,” “civilized.” As if what is defined as a human worth saving is identified by the color of their skin, the language they speak, the religion they practice or where they were born.
The ugly truth is our humanity is skin deep. And it breaks my heart.
Today in Poland I see the beauty of what can happen when refugees are welcomed. When kindness and compassion is what greets those on the run for their lives. When hundreds of volunteers wait for bus after bus with signs offering free rides and warm places to stay. When security forces of the host nation facilitate movement, provide information and shelter. When a stranger says, “It’s OK, you are safe now, what can I do for you?”
Again, I flash back to what happens when refugees are not welcome. In 2015, none of the restaurants or cafes around Hungary’s Budapest train station allowed refugees inside. Those fleeing were corralled like cattle by security forces until they broke through and just ran. Miles and miles of people walking, hoping and praying someone would show them mercy.
There was so much anti-refugee rhetoric from European governments and populations back then, shrouded in fears that ISIS would infiltrate, that those on the road were “too different.” And yes, this was also at the peak of ISIS’s bombings in Europe. But it was also the peak of ISIS and other terrorist groups attacks in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond.
At the heart of this is the sad reality, that the refugees I’ve reported on in years past were from the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan and were deemed “the other” by many in the Western world. And for some reason that made their pain and suffering unrelatable.
I told the world on CNN the Syrians are like anyone else; they had dreams, homes, a sense of security they believed in. I felt like it was not resonating, not penetrating. For the vast majority of our Western audience, they remained “the other.”
As a journalist, I often ask myself: Did I somehow fail back then? How could I have told those refugee stories to make the world care? I have carried that guilt with me for years, still even today. Because surely, there should have been a way to show the Western world – the same world now standing with Ukrainians; that the Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and others who took this same path through Europe are just like them.
I am Arab American, but my appearance – light skinned, green-eyed, fair haired – is so outside of the Arab stereotype no one questions if I belong.
I see Syrian and Iraqi faces in those of the Ukrainians. And I’m taken back to Greece in 2015 when an elderly, elegant Syrian lady fleeing for safety in the mud grabbed my arm, her touch as soft as my Nana’s.
I remember that same year, a woman in Hungary asked us not to film, not because she was worried about the security of her family still in Syria, but because she did not want them to see her humiliated, sitting on the ground, dirty.
This week I looked at the Ukrainian women and children filing on the waiting buses, and I am so relieved for their sake that their refugee story is different.
It wasn’t all bad. I did witness some heartwarming moments in 2015. People on the highway connecting Hungary to Austria stopped with strollers, food, and water for the refugees. Apologizing for the behavior of their government saying, “We are not all like that.” And at makeshift gathering points local efforts did eventually combine with those of larger charities to provide basic shelter. But none of it compares to what I am witnessing here in Ukraine and Poland.
At every refugee relocation center and border crossing, there are mountains of clothes, stuffed animals, strollers, and so much more. An entire system and army of volunteers working together to help fleeing Ukrainians in need.
I remember when then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her country would take in one million Syrians. The refugees I was with in Hungary began weeping with joy; finally feeling welcome and no longer treated like unwanted garbage. But ultimately as the months dragged on, Europe’s bigger solution was to cut a deal with Turkey to close the migrant route, freezing those on the road in limbo.
Seven years later, many of them are still in the same camps and makeshift centers, their lives stagnant. Some children born in the camps have never known a real home. Many are likely unaware Syrians are still in these makeshift camps.
I juxtapose those memories with what is happening across the world today, with so many nations declaring all Ukrainian refugees welcome. I see Western nations offering these refugees yearslong residencies, work permits and free transit into other countries.
I see how Western and other powers express outrage over Ukraine, the very same nations that, at best, offered lip service when it came to Syria and those that just kept their mouth shut. I see country after country, western and non, unified in pressuring Russia, slapping harsher sanctions than ever before. I see credit card companies denying use in Russia, airlines stopping services and products being boycotted.
No matter where they are from, the refugees’ emotions are so similar: the inability to comprehend how their reality became so suddenly and violently altered, and the survivors’ guilt that ravages those who fled, even if to save their children, even if rationally it was the only choice.
Each war is its own, its outlines drawn by powers larger than the individual, and by the greed and cruelty of geopolitics. But the pain of humanity caught up in the tug-of-war remains the same. The agony of realizing that not only is home no longer safe – it may no longer exist at all.
Villages and cities where little feet used to run and chase each other, now reduced to rubble. Kitchens and living rooms where families gathered over meals and couples bickered are blown out shells covered in gray dust. Heads in hands, shoulders shaking, souls screaming.
That pain is universal. The reaction to it should be as well.