As far as Milwaukee is concerned, the ongoing Syrian Civil War may seem like more of a political sticking point than a war, but the truth is there are victims of this crisis in need of help right here in our city. While the conflict rages on between the Bashar al-Assad regime, various rebel groups within Syria opposing Assad’s rule (including ISIS), and the dubious interests of foreign governments, thousands of displaced Syrians have sought shelter in the United States, a country once perceived as welcoming to refugees regardless of ethnicity or religion.
The sudden U.S. missile attack on Syria’s Shayrat Airbase last week has focused the national news spotlight on the Syrian conflict, making Saturday’s Solidarity: A Benefit For Refugees all the more timely. The benefit show, which takes place at 8 p.m. at Riverwest Public House, “raises funds for refugees both in Syria and those who live in Milwaukee,” according to the Facebook event page. Performers include Marielle Allschwang & The Visitations and Painted Caves, whose singer Ali Lubbad recently sat down with Milwaukee Record to discuss his family’s refugee history and the importance of solidarity in an era of pronounced xenophobia.
Milwaukee Record: Is this event something that you were actually involved in organizing?
Ali Lubbad: Well, no, I wasn’t involved in organizing it. I was approached a long time ago about it, though, by someone from the organization that’s putting it on…
MR: That would be Lutheran Social Services: Refugee Resettlement, and Diaconia Connections [“an ecumenical 501(c)(3) charity organization connecting people and mobilizing resources,” per its official website].
AL: Diaconia Connections approached me months ago about doing a benefit for Syrian refugees, and I was into it, but the timing wasn’t working initially, and then they moved it to the Riverwest Public House. And I really wanted to be a part of it, because my dad—my whole Palestinian side of the family—were refugees. And obviously, there’s a refugee problem in the Middle East right now, and there has been for years.
MR: You mean they came to America as refugees?
AL: My father’s side of the family, in what is now the country of Israel, initially were in a place called Majdal, which doesn’t exist any more, where modern-day Ashkelon is, and they were expelled from there. Then they went to what is called the Gaza Strip now, and then Egypt invaded and they were expelled from there and went to the West Bank. And then the ’67 [Six-Day] War happened, and they were expelled from there and went to Jordan. And then in Jordan, my father was eligible to become a student, and he came here to MATC as an engineering student. He met my mother there. She was there to study stenography.
They met in the cafeteria, started going out, got married, and built a life together. And then he died…a little less than a year after I was born. So he was a refugee, and a lot of Palestinians live like refugees all over the Middle East. They’re kind of unwanted in most countries. They’re seen as interlopers, kind of in the way that immigrants [in the U.S.]…there’s a sense that they’re not wanted. They have nowhere to go, and so they’re villainized, as if they’re taking your jobs, or they’re taking your ability to have upward mobility, they’re the problem. And I guess that’s the way it is. The most vulnerable groups are shit on.
MR: You just got back from a tour with Painted Caves in Europe. Is the attitude similar there, or is it radically different? Did you talk to people about the Syrian crisis or anything?
AL: There were some people that talked to us about Trump, who were basically in awe. They were saying, “Half of your people voted for that guy. How did that happen?” And I was kind of telling them my perspective, which was [that] it wasn’t so much that they were for him, but it was a big middle finger to the entire political system. It was like apes slinging fecal matter, rather than a vote for what he stands for. I don’t know if that was helpful.
But a very different attitude [in Europe]…I didn’t notice this divide between ultra-wealthy and ultra-poor people that I can see here. I saw a lot more curiosity about people from different places. You know in some senses, the Middle East and Africa are just to the south [of Europe] in the same way that Mexico is to the south of us, and…people, like here, can have different perspectives. You can have an open perspective where you’re interested in other cultures and people and see that they have value that they can bring to life, or you could be xenophobic and say that they’re a problem, they’re taking our jobs, they’re worthless and all that stuff. But what I saw in Denmark and Belgium, the people I came across were really great people that seem really interested in different places in life.
The general vibe I experienced was one of…acceptance, I guess. You know, I saw a lot of Muslims there. I saw different people all over the place and I did not see the villainization of people. And the whole country is at least bilingual so they all speak Danish and English. The main thing I can say is there was a humanity to people there, where they didn’t see helping the grasshopper out as a sign of weakness. That it was actually strength. We have enough grain, we can help out the grasshopper, we don’t have to let him die. Whereas here I feel like there’s a definite vengefulness.
MR: Now when you say “here,” do you mean the overall national narrative, or do you feel like that’s a Milwaukee thing? Or do you think they’re the same?
AL: Well, I don’t know. I mean, didn’t the majority of our state want Scott Walker in? And the majority of our state, outside of Milwaukee and Madison, voted for Donald Trump. So I think that there might be a sentiment of, “I work hard and some people don’t, and the people who don’t might deserve to die.”
MR: Okay, but in Milwaukee, do you think there’s a groundswell of charitable activity, maybe in the creative community in particular?
AL: I think so, yeah. It seems like in places where there’s more education and more diversity, there’s more people who are educated on this subject, and hopefully exercise less fear. And so their choices are based on some knowledge rather than just listening to political speeches that villainize powerless people, you know? So I have seen some of that, and like what we saw in New York, with the attorneys at the airport trying to help people who were detained, that was a beautiful thing. I mean, wasn’t that one of the most encouraging developments since the beginning of the Trump presidency? To see people mobilizing and trying to help each other? I guess I can’t politicize anyone else’s work, but I think there’s more of an urgency to the art scene everywhere, because of the fact that we have such aggressively ignorant people in power.
MR: Marielle Allschwang, who is playing at this benefit, actually went and performed at Standing Rock. And you’ve got Kelly Todd and Jeremy Ault appearing as well.
AL: Jeremy Ault is the [director] of Diaconia Connections. He’s trying to build some sort of support and solidarity for refugees, and they’re committed to building awareness as far as what the problems are and to try to bolster support for people in the community to let them know that they’re not alone.
MR: Do you have any suggestions for people, if they can’t make it to this event, organizations or other ways that they can help out?
AL: Well, the refugee resettlement programs all throughout the United States are kind of based many times through religious groups. Lutheran groups like the one some of this money is going to. Catholic Charities is another one. I think those are the big ones that really help with refugee resettlement, so that when they get off the plane after having refugee status, they’re met at the airport many times by these people, taken to an apartment…you know, there’s not that much support. I think for many people, they come here and they find themselves almost on their own, so what little these organizations are able to give is pretty crucial to put some food in their fridge and get them from the airport to a place that’s safe.
MR: Isn’t it interesting that the narrative that a lot of people look at is that there’s this religious, right-wing movement that’s working against refugees, while at the same time it’s a lot of faith-based organizations that are helping the most?
AL: Absolutely. It’s like anything. It’s like a knife. Religion is just a tool. You can either cut someone’s throat with it or you can make him an omelet. Again, the problem right now is aggressively ignorant people that, rather than humble themselves a little and exercise some compassion and humanity, are choosing to be judgmental pricks. You know, maybe not every refugee is…going to be completely harmless…but that’s the cost of humanity, of being kind, of holding out your hand. Sometimes someone may do you wrong, but I see it as more about us as a people than it is about them. They are us. I guess that’s the thing. To say “us and them” is this judgment, this strata of us above, them below. Maybe what I’m saying is there are no ants and grasshoppers. We’re all ants.
MR: Is there anything else you want people to know about this event?
AL: Music is important. And what I learned in Europe was that people need music, and it’s important for their own humanity to value the humanity of another. Here in this country, we’re being told, by and large, you don’t have to be kind or exercise mercy to be a human being. You can just be miserly and keep your shit and it’s all competitive. The idea with this benefit for refugees is that we need to acknowledge other people’s humanity, whether they speak another language, have another religion, dress like us, eat like us, have sex like us, it doesn’t matter. The point is they’re human beings, and you’ve got to have some love and mercy for human beings. Right?
Solidarity: A Benefit For Refugees is scheduled for Saturday, April 15 at the Riverwest Public House, beginning at 8 p.m. A $5 cash donation is suggested, and will be donated to Lutheran Social Services: Refugee Resettlement and Diaconia Connections.