A Growing Community: Social Media and Social Values

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IMG_0169For about two years, I’ve been Facebook friends with a Syrian.  Someone I “met” on line.

And now I am part of a group of other Facebook friends, working with JIAS-Toronto, who are co-sponsoring his refugee application to Canada.

I come from a family of what I would call principled activists.  My American parents marched with King; gathered canned food to help disaster victims; helped in the effort to find sanctuary for Soviet Jewish scientists; resisted obligatory drug testing for Federal employees.

And we children were always a part of those campaigns: painting signs, stuffing envelopes, traipsing door to door to collect donations or signatures on a petition. We learned early that a mensch stands up for his principles.

In those days, our network was our neighbourhood: its school, our friends, their parents. The information flow, modulated not on wi-fi but rather across dinner tables up and down the street, ensured that teasing, malfeasance, or what was known in that time and place as “sass” would instantly be reported to our parents. The consequences were typically rapid and emphatic.

The neighbourhood network of my childhood was also a vital safety net. When my brother cut his head while we were briefly in the care of my grandmother, it was a neighbour who drove him to the emergency room, got him stitched up, and brought him home safe and sound. When the married couple down the street went to jail on an embezzlement conviction, the neighbourhood women fostered their seven children in groups of two or three, feeling that it would be wrong for the kids to suffer for their parents’ obvious stupidity.

To be part of such a community meant that the problems of one member were not his or her problems alone. It meant there were people who would help. After all, that was what people did.

So when, a decade or so ago, social media began to open doors to a wider and far more diverse kind of community, I was thrilled. I understood right away that this medium would truly change everything. But I could never have imagined how.

As the Syrian revolution followed its bloody course, I began to hear BBC radio interviews with a Syrian peace activist in Homs. Aboud Dandachi spoke native quality English, having been educated in Britain. And he began to give regular, first person accounts of Assad’s horrifying assault on his own people.

As the situation in his native Homs became untenable, Aboud fled Syria, first to Lebanon and then to Istanbul, where he received an ill-defined “guest” status from the Turkish government. In Istanbul, Aboud became a prolific blogger, and thus came to the attention of the international media, writing multiple, thoughtful articles about Syria, Israel, and antisemitism.

These blogs brought Aboud to the attention of a group of Canadian pro-Israel activists of which I am a part. Aboud was noted as a Sunni Muslim, a Syrian, who refused to reflexively condemn Israel. Later, he said that he had been impacted by the fact that Syrians’ supposed friends – Russia and Iran – were supporting the murderous regime that was killing his neighbours. And that the people he had always been taught were Syrians’ mortal enemies – Israelis – were in fact offering medical assistance to injured civilians.

For thoughtful pro-Israel activists, Aboud’s unique voice was fascinating and refreshing. We adopted him into our on-line network and benefited enormously from his insights.

Over the last two years, Aboud’s Canadian Facebook friends have seen pictures of his brothers and celebrated with him at the birth of his beloved nephew. We have texted and we have Skyped. Some of the darker moments he has only shared with us more recently; I suspect that some things will remain untold. Not all things get better with the sharing.

As a peace activist, a supporter of Israel, and a philosemite, Aboud is very much at risk. Return to Syria is unthinkable, even when the immediate violence recedes, and especially if, as now appears horrifyingly possible, Assad remains in power. For now, Turkey offers a temporary but unpredictable refuge. And there are no other options.

But in the modern, electronic version of community, Aboud is part of a network in which the problems of one are not his or her problems alone. And in November, Aboud Dandachi’s social network decided that it was time for us to take action.

Working with JIAS-Toronto, we have gathered up the funds needed to sponsor Aboud through Canada’s refugee program, and signed the papers committing ourselves to assist him when he arrives. We are hopeful that the Canadian government will rapidly approve his application, and that we will soon be standing at the arrivals area of Pearson to greet our friend and welcome him to his new home.

Aboud will be an astonishing asset to Canada. He is smart, he is thoughtful, and he is principled.  He is every bit what my parents would call a mensch.

For myself, I would never have imagined that the social values and moral imperatives of my childhood neighbourhood would have so readily transposed to the virtual network of my Facebook feed. Most of all, I am happy to be part of a community where people help.

Because that, after all, is what people do.

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