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Should a nation intervene: A conversation in Istanbul

A rainy November eve in Istanbul - we run to seek refuge in an Indian restaurant - found after 15 min of walking with a stroller on not so stroller friendly pavements of the old city center. The server, humble and soft spoken has a smile that is immediately endearing yet somehow melancholic. He rushes to greet us, hurrying to move chairs to make place for the stroller and helps to bring a high chair to the table. Throughout the dinner he hangs around, volunteering to entertain my then 1 year old daughter – an offer we accepted with relief for a chance of interruption free dinner for a long day.

In our 9 days stay in Istanbul, we visit the restaurant quite a few times (limited by my very selective in food mother-in-law who doesn’t take to new cuisines easily). On the last day, I ask him about him, starting with a praise of Istanbul. ‘I am from Syria’ – he says softly – following with elaboration. His wife and daughter – mere 3 months old – were still on the order side of the border. He was of the few fortunate ones able to come into Turkey and find a job owing to his fluency in English. His interest in our daughter and the melancholy sensed in his smile at last explained.

We continue with a discussion on the state of Syria – the civil war, Asaad government, ISIS, outside influence and why wasn’t anyone winning the war? The last one often a topic of discussion for US talk shows. He mostly listens, and utters only a short sentence in summary ‘people in Syria are very poor, we have been poor for a long time. Asaad is very powerful, and Iran you know. We can’t do anything’. I left lost in thought as we walked past the gorgeous Blue Mosque – not on who supports whom in the civil war ongoing – but rather on power or lack thereof the citizens of a nation in turmoil to influence change.

I had been a long believer of uprising from within for solving a problem. Whether talking of a nation, a race or an institution. Outside awareness created and support garnered might facilitate and expedite an outcome, but the will and action has to come from the members of the community in concern. In my knowledge, an outsider (let’s limit the example to a nation here for understanding) role in facilitating a change has to be either forsaken at an unsustainable state or is viewed unwelcome and damaging years down the run by the same people who were to be salvaged. But were the tremendous sacrifices needed – often personal and enduring - to fight for a change from within and organize successful will and action realistic? Or even possible in most scenarios?

This week I heard a feature on NPR about a possible civil war in Burundi – protestors to the President’s unconstitutional third term contesting being mass murdered by paid militia. The story of a pharmacist was narrated, one who chose to try and deliver supplies to cornered protestors and was killed on the way. His vehicle was set on fire. His wife and children are now refugees in Rwanda, living in a camp in fear for their life.

The sheer vulnerability and often unsuccessful records (the severely persecuted Rohingya muslins in Myanmar had tried and failed - the Rohingya secessionist uprising between 1948 and 1961 only left them exposed to further wrath - a fate not uncommon for perpetrators of such audacity) renders such actions almost inevitable to fail.

And then there is the question of moral responsibility of the rest of the world. Recently a feature on the Mediterranean refugee crisis read: after the crimes of Second World War countries made solemn undertakings never again to abandon innocent people in persecution and conflict.

Yet nations have limitations and rightful interest in defending resources for their own citizen first. For global citizens concerned, where does the line begin then and where does it end?

A forgotten face and conversation resurfaced in my mind, along with recent discussions with a close friend. Why the people fleeing cartels in Mexico risking their lives through the Mohave Desert don’t fight for change in their homeland instead. If the conditions they are fleeing are persecution, death or even worse, why not take a stand there? Are the Rohingya Muslims stranded off coast really Thailand’s responsibility? Should the immigrants in Mediterranean in effort to flee their home nation all be provided refuge? Even at the cost interest of the host country? And why doesn’t the US and allies put troops on ground to rescue Syrian people?

Questions and issues surely quite different for political, anthropological and sociological experts, but linked in my imprudent mind.

Naively hoping for personal sacrifice and courage to incite a revolution and asking every citizen to challenge repression seems quite idealistic now. Asking for selfless choices from individuals with families like us – vulnerable, afraid, unsure – now seems ludicrous.

There is no easy way out, and possibly no right answer, but recalling the melancholic eyes of the man whose name I now can’t remember, I feel like shouting out in loud to call for interference, for a nation to take a chance, for citizens who are not its own.

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