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Who would have thought a modest form of swimwear would could present such a threat to the French state and set off one of the most fiery debates of the year?
As our newsfeeds are taken over by a flood of responses to the French crackdown on the burkini, we find ourselves asking the hard questions on how we can address some of the most complex social challenges faced by our society: does banning the burkini stand for the very repression that are trying to rid ourselves of? How might we reconcile our double standards in the choices of we allow for what we choose to wear? What amount of sacrifice can we tolerate in the name of integration between clashing social and cultural values?
While we continue to explore the intellectual boundaries of what our free and open society stands for, we must also prepare ourselves to ask the softer empathetic questions if we want to make real social progress. We can all easily connect empathetically with the need for quality time with family at the beach where we can relax, dip our feet in the cooling waters of the ocean and soak in the Mediterranean sun. It may be harder for many of us to empathize with how a day at the beach could turn to the worst experience of a lifetime.
On Tuesday, a mother identified as Siam was forced by four armed police officers to remove her burkini and undress herself in front of her children and other family members. Her children, crying as they watched the aggression towards their mother, were far removed from our intellectualized discussions of theological liberties and female emancipation; their experience is one of harassment, humiliation and the stripping of their mother’s dignity.
As these young boys and girls continue to experience more hatred over the most formative years of their lives, they will connect their suffering back to their traumatic outing the beach. They will struggle as they try to create a sense of identity and self-worth for themselves in the face of expected bullying and harassment. And over time, they might even begin questioning whether or not they even belong in our society, creating a pathway to resentment and possibly violence.
When we bring fear and alienation to any one of us, we deprive ourselves of the inclusive principles which make our society great, stable and safe.
As we determine how we move forward, some of us call for an entire rejection of a culture and ideology perceived to be wholly incompatible with our own, while others believe that we must sacrifice and endure to protect the liberties that all of us deserve. These views come from good intentions and a genuine interest in returning our society to stability, yet I refuse to believe that there are winners and losers when trying to reconcile this rich and diverse patchwork of cultures and belief systems we have cultivated over the years.
I have had the immense privilege of working with inspired changemakers across the globe tirelessly paving a path towards hope, solidarity and understanding in their own communities, and these changemakers show us that there is a third way to bring stability and dignity back to our society.
WeUnify Calgary, a member-run chapter of the organization which I lead, recently hosted a #MeetARefugee event in the city of Calgary, Canada. This three-day event offered seven Syrian refugees the opportunity to volunteer at a booth placed at a high traffic plaza right at the edge of the city’s downtown core. A welcoming “Meet A Syrian Refugee” sign offered passerby’s a chance to connect. Surprisingly, this was the first time that every day Calgarians had a chance to meet Syrian refugees in a public open space, offering an opportunity for everyone to build bridges and welcome the new additions to a diverse and inclusive city.
Not all Calgarians are thrilled about the large influx of a foreign population and the idea of removing barriers for interaction was a bold one which was met with resistance. But we believed that when we start with possibility rather than fear, then we can transform ourselves and create a new reality.
There were hugs, tears and laughter as both Canadians and Syrians embraced each other, traded jokes, and exchanged phone numbers to continue staying in touch. This bold social experiment shows us that our common humanity can outweigh our perceived differences.
One of the Syrians, a sharp and compassionate 19-year-old, has emailed our team at WeUnify three times with immense enthusiasm to launch more similar events. She now sees herself as part of a collective shared future with her newfound Canadian friends, and looks forward to building a new life in Canada away from the instability she left behind in Damascus.
When we draw ourselves back to the children of Siam, forever scarred by what happened to their mother on what was meant to be a day out at the beach with family, we must accept that they too share an aspiration to belong and find purpose. They want to be a part of a world we can build together, and fostering inclusion and unity is the only way we can secure a future based on possibility over fear. A future where nobody is feeling so betrayed by our society that they would want to inflict harm on us.
Now, we must ask ourselves how we can build more bridges across lines of difference to foster real social progress. To take on this challenge, the WeUnify team is busy finding changemakers across the world who are willing to set up WeUnify chapters in their own cities and launch campaigns such as #MeetARefugee or develop their own ideas to bring unity to their city. We have gained immense interest to join the movement from across the globe as far as the Czech Republic, Greece, the Phillipines, Afghanistan, Egypt and the US. But we can’t do it alone because building an inclusive world takes all of us.
This is where I turn it back to you. You read all the way to the end of this article because you care about fostering our shared interconnectedness as human beings. My call to action to you is to help us build bridges towards a shared future that we can all see ourselves in.
Join us at WeUnify.org, pledge to become a WeUnify member and join us in working together towards a world where everyone is heard, included and empowered for change.
About the author: Henry Chim is the Founder of WeUnify, a movement dedicated to fostering social unity for the well being and safety of our world. He is a former technology entrepreneur, Deloitte Strategy consultant and Acumen Global Fellow. Henry tweets under @thehenrychim.
About WeUnify: We are a movement dedicated to fostering social unity for the well being and safety of our world. We bring the WeUnify community, action and ideas to cities across the world, in turn uniting local initiatives for hope, solidarity and understanding across lines of difference with our global platform for impact.
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