Refugee crisis: Their pain is our shame

What does it say about the wealthy Arab world that the doors are closed to our own people?

Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor
Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor
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What does it say about our part of the world that our Syrian brothers and sisters feel the need to flee to a place where they are not wanted? To a place where they are being humiliated and insulted! What does it say about this wealthy Arab world, blessed with vast empty tracts of land, that the doors are closed to our own people?

The scenes dominating our screens are almost unbearable to watch. Tiny children washed up on the shore like flotsam. Hundreds lost under the waves of the sea, with the dead and suffocating in the holds of boats. Pregnant women, children and the disabled in wheelchairs determined to get to the land of promise, only to find the way is barred with barbed wire, teargas and the batons of riot police.

But on they go – thirsty and hungry, their feet sore with blisters, catching a few hours of sleep in open fields, unable to wash themselves. On they go with babies in arms and toddlers astride their fathers’ shoulders fuelled by hope that tomorrow will be a better day because every weary footstep takes them closer to Europe – and sanctuary.

It is there that their dreams turn to nightmares. They have survived barrel bombs. They have lived through chemical attacks and escaped the clutches of terrorists. They have seen their homes turned into dust and their cities reduced to pockmarked moonscapes. They have witnessed atrocities that most of us cannot even imagine. They have buried fathers, brothers, and sons.

And when the last leg of their marathon journey to the European Union is finally over with just a few hours’ train journey to Germany, they see their future slipping away, so near and yet so far. They have been told to halt. But fatigue and hunger does not make them waver. They refuse to be herded into wretched camps like criminals fearing they might languish there for months or even years.

The inaction of Arab leaderships has forced not only Syrians but also Iraqis to seek safety wherever they can find it.

Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor

Hot and thirsty, packed into a train for 24 hours, they reject the bottled water offered by the police. They will not be humiliated or treated like lesser humans. ‘No trains, fine! We will walk the 130 kilometres to the Austrian border’ – and so an exodus of refugees not seen in Europe since World War II begins. They make me so proud. From the toddlers seen putting one foot in front of the other and still managing to smile to the elderly trying to keep up, their courage and sheer grit is an inspiration to us all.

God bless countries like Germany, Sweden and Iceland that have put out a welcome mat, but this tragic situation is not Europe’s responsibility. Those poor people are Arabs, both Muslim and Christian. The inaction of Arab leaderships has forced not only Syrians but also Iraqis to seek safety wherever they can find it.

Why should we expect the EU to pick up the pieces of our neglect? Our Arab nation has collectively done nothing to rid Syria of the criminal Assad regime, whose viciousness turned this once beautiful historic land into a cesspool of violence and destruction. It will take generations to return Syria to any semblance of its former glory; lost forever are ancient mosques, temples, monasteries and churches, blown up by mad creatures who dare to call themselves Muslims. More importantly, lost forever are 300,000 human beings – and counting.

How many of those souls trudging along a Hungarian highway will ever see their homeland again I wonder? I was deeply touched by the message of a young boy standing outside the Budapest train station, who said he did not want to be in Europe. What he wants is for the world to stop the war in his country so he can go home. I have heard so many others say the same thing. But no one is listening. No one is doing anything.

Those people are not economic migrants. They are not freeloaders out to live on state handouts. They are fleeing war and persecution with rights under the UN’s Refugee Convention which stipulates that no refugee must be discriminated against in terms of race or religion.

The Arab states have failed the Syrians and unless the leaderships do the right thing, Syrians will never be able to forgive the Arabs for abandoning them in their hour of need. The day will come when our grandchildren will ask what we did to save them. What shall we tell them, other than we sent some money and dropped a few bombs?

Just about everyone I know is upset about a photograph of two-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying face down on the sand of a Turkish beach. The terrible fate of this angelic child has put a human face to the Syrian conflict, galvanizing European public opinion in the refugees’ favor.

Banners reading “Welcome Syrian Refugees” are appearing among the crowds in football stadiums. Thousands gathered in Vienna chanting their welcome. Some 10,000 Icelanders offered homes to Syrians. More than 260,000 Britons signed a petition demanding Prime Minister David Cameron agree to accept more. There are good people in Europe who care, so why can’t we?

It is no good saying, ‘it is not our problem’. God is watching. I can only plead with Arab leaderships – especially leaders of Gulf States – to immediately respond to this emergency by firstly doing all in their power to host as many refugees as possible.

More importantly, I would urge GCC states and their Arab allies to tackle this problem at its root. Just as we are fighting to free Yemen from Iranian proxy militias, so we must use all our resources to save Syria from its brutal pro-Iranian puppet and the other blood-thirsty mobs.

What has happened to the Arab DNA since the days of caliphs who looked after their people’s wellbeing and fought for their dignity? Not only lives are at stake. So is what we once valued above all – our Arab honour.


Khalaf Ahmad al-Habtoor is a prominent UAE businessman and public figure. He is Chairman of the Al Habtoor Group - one of the most successful conglomerates in the Gulf. Al Habtoor is renowned for his knowledge and views on international political affairs; his philanthropic activity; his efforts to promote peace; and he has long acted as an unofficial ambassador for his country abroad. Writing extensively on both local and international politics, he publishes regular articles in the media and has released a number of books. Al-Habtoor began his career as an employee of a local UAE construction firm and in 1970 established his own company, Al Habtoor Engineering. The UAE Federation, which united the seven emirates under the one flag for the first time, was founded in 1971 and this inspired him to undertake a series of innovative construction projects – all of which proved highly successful.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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