I remember heading on a trip down to the local mall during my university days in the quaint town of Saint John in New Brunswick, Canada. Two male friends, who like me hailed from the Middle East, accompanied me. As we walked down the brightly lit mall corridor, we ran into a second group of Middle Eastern friends. As is customary back in the Middle East, the men not only extended their hands for the usual handshake, they also leaned over for cheek kissing. Cheek kissing is a common form of greeting among men in the Middle East. It is done to indicate friendship and to show respect. As this scene of several tall, dark and handsome young men engaging in a round of cheek kissing unfolded, we soon found an onlooking crowd of curious shoppers. Some walked past and looked back a few times. Others smiled. Some ventured and asked us where we were from. All the reactions were friendly and rooted in genuine intrigue. That though, was well before 9/11.
The popular Western construct of the Middle Eastern man pre 9/11 was based on a few stereotypes, some harmless and some not. Their worst at the time perhaps included one version or another on the number of wives a typical Middle Eastern man would have. At other times this might be an image of an overweight, rich and backward male presiding over a harem, albeit one with contemporary hues to adjust to our current times. Post 9/11 a much damning stereotype was added to the list: a terrorist.
Post the Paris attacks and the long-standing refugee crisis, my newsfeed is blaring with headlines affirming not only the grip of this stereotype, but more so the grave threat that the realization of some of these headlines might render. In the past weeks, the most trending Canadian news headline read as follows: “Canada’s Syrian Refugee Plan limited to women, children and families”. In smaller script, a sub headline reads: “Unaccompanied men not included because of ongoing security concerns”. David Cameron announced his Syrian refugee plan earlier in September, clearly pointing out that women and children would be given priority. The US is battling a wave of an outright rejection of all Muslim refugees, and with it the downfall of its very founding values. Prior to all this mayhem, a similar trend took hold and the term “Economic Immigrants” was cast on the scores of single or unaccompanied young men making their journey through Europe. The men in my region are either hate-filled, radicalized, gun-grabbing, crazed suicide bombers or miraculously unaffected by the constant physical and emotional traumas of their war ravaged environments.
So in what bucket does Ayham Al Ahmad fall? The 27-year-old made his “viral debut” on social media platforms in the Middle East a year ago. In a video, he takes center stage with his upright piano in the dirt streets of the devastated Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus. A frail Ayham, who was then living through a 450-day siege of the camp, would take to his piano singing serenades of hope, endurance and sometimes despair. He fled the camp the day ISIS burned his piano to the ground. He too today is making his journey through Europe. Meet Ayham, the musical terrorist with economic needs.
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Ayham isn’t an anomaly; he is joined by scores of young men from my region looking for safety, hope and freedom. Denying them refuge on the basis of their gender or marital status reaches far beyond being a human rights issue and surpasses our needs for fulfilling moral duties manifesting in upholding equality, as critical as these points are. Granting refuge to young men from my region shields them from radicalization. Leading experts in the fields of terrorism, psychology and radicalization explain how unsafe refugee camps become fertile breeding grounds for extremism, and how the longer refugees are left to endure through unsafe conditions, the more susceptible they become to despair, anger, disillusionment and radicalization.
Men the world over grapple with misperceptions that are so primitively trapped within our narrow gender lens. We deem men less vulnerable and more able to protect themselves both physically and emotionally in comparison to women. Whilst this might prove correct in some situations, one would only need to delve deeper into studies of violence against men during armed conflict, and more specifically of sexual violence, to realize the extent of damage and vulnerability that men face and have to endure during armed conflict. A read through the harrowing report of Will Storr, “The Darkest Secret of War”, brings home that during war, everything and everyone is prone to violation.
My Middle Eastern male cheek-kissing compatriots are indeed fighters. They fight everyday against a world that seems determined to throw them back into the grip of extremists and extremism. So which team are you rooting for?