Getting concrete information on world affairs can often feel like trying to build a restoration out of Jello. It seems no matter where you look, news is inherently biased and trying to push one political agenda or another. Factual reporting seems to have evaporated like acrylic monomer beneath the sun. So it is with some trepidation that I set out to write about the Syrian refugee crisis. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the better part of the decade, there has been a fair amount of strife in Syria. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you write an understatement. There are at least three factions—and really more like five or six—vying for control of a country 25% smaller than Colorado. Imagine, if you will, living in a place where instead of hearing honking horns, gunfire is more the norm. A place where you must live in constant fear of bombings—both from the sky and from the ground. A place where, at any given moment, your life could end. Try to imagine what you would do in such a place.
I recently met a patient in screening. He told me his teeth hurt, which is not uncommon in that clinic. We chatted for a while about how the school works and what he could expect from his time with us. I did notice he wasn’t opening his mouth much to talk. While playing the waiting-for-faculty game, we made small talk. Food came up, and I mentioned I like middle-eastern cuisine. He told me he was from Syria, and he suggested I try the restaurant at which he works. I thought nothing of it.
Then I looked in his mouth.
His teeth—all 28 of them—were ground down to below the CEJ. His mouth looked like someone had taken a handpiece and leveled every tooth to an almost-perfect flat plane. I had to resist the urge to gasp. I asked him about his habits, trying to determine an etiology of what I was seeing. It was a short conversation.
His answer was that he ground his teeth during times of stress. Over the past couple of years, twenty-nine of his extended family members had been killed in and around Syria. Twenty. Nine. They had been killed in the civil war. They had been murdered by ISIS. They had perished trying to flee across the Mediterranean. The how doesn’t really matter.
Imagine your extended family. If I think, I can come up with about fifty names of family members with whom I have a connection. Now imagine that over half of them are dead. It’s a sobering thought.
I set out to write this article without taking a side on the refugee crisis. But every time I hear about the thousands of people fleeing Syria, my mind involuntarily returns to this patient. Never have I met someone who so starkly illustrated just how good our lives are in this country.
In the wake of the attacks in Paris, this issue has risen to the very forefront of mainstream media. Like so many issues, it has become politicized, where every person has to pick a side—red or blue. There are those who fear ISIS will sneak into our country under the guise of refugees. And there are those who feel compelled to open our borders and welcome the refugees.
I completely understand both sides of the argument. Am I afraid of ISIS entering our country? Of course I am. It’s a very real fear, the kind of fear that can turn your stomach to ice. But you all know the line: “All we have to fear is fear itself.” That fear shouldn’t make us lose our decency as human beings. If we let fear divide us, ISIS has already won.
To say it is a complicated problem would be to call the sun warm. But I always go back to this patient. How can I, in good conscience, sit in the relative safety of my home, and at the same time deny this man a chance to reunite with the remaining members of his family? No matter how many arguments I read, I can’t bring myself to do it. I don’t know the right answer. As H.L. Menkin once said, “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
What I do know is that, this week especially, I’m thankful for the country in which I live. I’m thankful for the men and women who fight to defend the freedoms I often take for granted. And I’m thankful that—in the not-too-distant future—my chosen profession will allow me to help patients like this, taking away some part of their pain, however small a part it may be.
I would welcome conversation and debate, as long as it is kept civil. At the end of the day, we’re all on the same team.