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Protest Song of the Week: ‘Omar’

The global refugee crisis in Europe persists, as over a million of the most vulnerable people seek resettlement in countries which can support them with humanitarian aid. Yet, some of the most wealthy countries in the world have failed to appropriately respond to this desperate moment.

Amnesty International estimates only ten percent of 1.15 million of the most vulnerable refugees have been resettled. While “developing countries” in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia shoulder the burden of taking care of 86% of the the world’s 19.5 million refugees, richer countries dither and deny assistance to survivors of war—mostly fueled by the same countries who should step up and do more to help refugees.

Ryan Harvey, a “riot folk” singer and songwriter, wrote a song about the refugee crisis called “Omar.”

The song personifies the refugee crisis through the story of Omar, who is an Algerian. He has made it to Spain after traveling over land and then over the sea in a crowded boat. He left a life of squalor and runs from hardship fueled by civil war. As Harvey sings, “colonial memory” remains.

Harvey juxtaposes this with the ignorance or implicit racism of Europeans, who ask, “What are they running from?” They fail to see or recognize why millions have fled their home countries.

In one verse, Harvey sings, “Big money flows through the global casino/It sends people far from their homes.” Their sent to shanties, stadiums, and gutters. They wind up in warehouses, factories or farms, where they are “mistreated and cheated/while the facts of their lives are ignored.”

Not only is their callous indifference, as Harvey describes in his song, there is a virulent strain of fascism in Europe, which condemns any charity toward refugees. Sweden, Italy, Spain, Germany, France, and England each have seen rallies indicating the rise of right wing groups driven by nativism.

“It looks like the past came right back and started all over again,” Harvey concludes.

Harvey, who composed this song for Firebrand Records which he co-founded with Tom Morello, was motivated to write this song because America has played a key role in destabilizing countries, which millions of refugees have fled.

“Europe says they can’t afford to take care of theses people, meanwhile, developing countries currently host 86 percent of the world’s refugees, the wealthy countries, 14 percent,” Harvey explains. “You do the math. Lebanon alone has four times more Syrian refugees within its small borders than all of Europe. Of Iraq’s four million refugees that fled directly from a war we initiated, the U.S. has admitted a mere 80,000 inside the country.”

Whenever the U.S. talks about going to war to “liberate” people or defend democracy, Harvey suggests Americans remember how over 9 million Syrians have fled their homes, over 4 million Iraqis fled during the Iraq War (many to Syria), how millions more have fled to Iraq, and how millions have also fled from Afghanistan to escape war.

Given the severity of the crisis, Harvey appeals to one’s humanity and asks what can be done to show solidarity with refugees and various groups actually trying to help people in need.

The song ends with a quote popularized by the people’s historian Howard Zinn: “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”

Harvey’s song, “Omar,” is Shadowproof’s “Protest Song of the Week,” and below is a recording of Harvey performing the song in Liberec, Czech Republic.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."