A few years ago, I began attending Philosophy Dinners in Vancouver, organized by someone who moved to British Columbia from Ontario and was looking for ways to connect meaningfully with others. We would meet once a month on Sundays at Steamworks Brewery & Pub in Gastown, enjoyed lunch with a glass of wine and discussed various topics. Some of them included, demystifying creativity, the ethics of sex workers and the power of humour, just to mention a few.
One particular Sunday afternoon the topic was borders and nations. I always enjoyed the subject of national identity, because mine is complicated: I was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, to a Russian mother and a Polish father. After my birth, we lived in Russia for another year, until my father completed his engineering studies. I have no recollection of the place or culture, and I never spoke Russian. We moved to Poland, but for the next eighteen years of my life, I was a Russian citizen. This was until one day, my mother and I renounced our Russian citizenship and were rendered stateless.
That summer my father took my brother and me to Hungary for a family vacation, and my mother and I were issued travel documents in which I appeared as “a daughter of my mother,” with no other identifying qualifier. I found this fascinating in some mysterious way. I fantasized that I was a citizen of the world. Despite the lack of connection with my original roots, I always knew I belonged to my family.
Perhaps that early experience taught me that no matter where we come from, we’re all part of the human family and that nationalities don’t play important roles in our lives.
I have since learned that some people may disagree.
During our Philosophy Dinner on the topic, some people felt that refugees should not be welcome in Canada, because they are not part of our problems. That was around the time when Justin Trudeau became Prime Minister and was welcoming Syrian refugees to Canada. I heard similar resistance towards Syrian refugees from other people in my circle. The main argument was that Trudeau should be focusing on fixing problems at home first. “We have homeless population in Canada,” they said. “Why not take care of our people first?”
In preparation to my Philosophy Dinner, I watched two YouTube videos. Both documented anti-immigration rallies by far-right movements. One took place in Milan, Italy, in 2014, and the other one in Warsaw, Poland, in 2011. The protesters called themselves nationalists who wanted to protect their country’s values. They were extreme patriots, who in reality displayed xenophobic views. One member of the rally stated that newcomers should be wearing some sort of arm badges for easy identification: since no one knows who these people are, they should be monitored, and their movement must be restricted.
Refugees have been known for millennia, but it wasn’t until 1951 that the UN drafted the actual definition of “refugee,” in response to mass persecution and displacement due to the Second World War.
Every year many refugees flee to Europe seeking asylum. They’re not “illegal migrants,” but people fleeing violence and persecution. Here are some elements of their harsh reality:
- They are forced to leave their country of origin due to violence, fear of persecution due to race, religion or political views
- They often must flee their home unexpectedly, leaving all their belongings behind
- They often don’t have proper travel documents and they must undertake risky and dangerous journeys, entrusting their lives to smugglers
- Overwhelming numbers of refugees are children
- Many asylum seekers live in refugee camps and they are not officially recognized as refugees
- The resettlement and integration process can be very long, and many refugees remain in refugee camps for decades
- Refugees are frequent victims of inconsistent and discriminatory treatment, facing xenophobia and racism
Some people often say, “But refugees are not our problem. They’re not our people.” The reality is that refugees are human. We’re part of the same species. All humans are human and therefore they’re our people.
Refugees are not only our legal responsibility, but also moral responsibility. Immanuel Kant, influential German philosopher of the Age of Enlightenment argued that, “to act in the morally right way, one must act purely from duty.” This begins an argument that the highest good must be both good, and good without qualification.
I would like to leave you with two questions:
When does nationalism or patriotism go too far and how can we find the right balance?
What moral obligations do we have as individual citizens to aid refugees?
~ Marianna Maliszewska