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In 2010, Bashar al-Assad of Syria replaced his original progressive political reforms with neoliberal economic policies that widened the gap between the rich and the poor in the already financially unstable country he led. He employed a secret police force, encouraged torture tactics, and exacerbated the effects of the anti-government ideology spreading throughout the Middle East. Eventually, his dictatorship and lack of regard for his citizens sparked a revolt. The rebellion and the demands that he resign prompted him to respond with military action in major Syrian cities, leading to the civil war that has since claimed over 465,000 lives and displaced more than 12 million people total. Half of these are children under 18.
The United States has done relatively little to assist the people whose lives have been torn apart by this war. A large part of our reluctance to help stems from our ideas about accepting refugees: 54 percent of American voters and 87 percent of Trump voters responded to a survey indicating that they do not think America has that responsibility.
Sending missiles in April 2017 did nothing to support those who are already displaced. It only added to the violence that we should be trying to help people survive in what has been called the “worst man-made disaster since World War II,” and intervening internationally is not, and usually never is, our country’s place. What we should do is simply allow those who wish to seek refuge here to do so.
Many of us in the US have several big misconceptions that prevent us from doing just that.
Myth #1: Other countries will handle it (or, America is already doing enough).
10 states host 56% of world’s refugees, although they account for only 2.5% of global economy. Countries in the Middle East have taken in large numbers of Syrians specifically, with Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt leading efforts. The majority of these countries are very small, and they are all still developing, yet they host far more refugees than larger, wealthier countries. For instance, Turkey has accepted 2.75 million, more than any other country. Lebanon, a country whose total size is less than ten percent of that of my home, the U.S. state of Georgia, now hosts 1.5 million refugees. That means that 1 out of every 5 people in the country is a displaced Syrian. Similarly, Jordan, at about half the size of Florida, has taken around 657,000 refugees. They now comprise about 10 percent of the country’s total population.
While many Americans seem to think that other countries will do enough to help, oftentimes they simply can’t due to their limited resources. 93 percent of refugees in Jordan live beneath the poverty line, compared to around 70 percent in Lebanon, 65 percent in Egypt, and 37 percent in Iraq.
These countries’ funds are limited, and they often rely on outside aid to provide facilities for the influx of refugees. Resettlement is also meant to be temporary. For these reasons, when refugees arrive in their host country, they may live in camps, like Za’atari in Jordan, rather than among the general public. Even though the number of refugees staying in camps is comparatively small, the dangers they face outside of these facilities are such that they are left with few options. Those who do live in camps endure undesirable conditions to say the least, as they are often not conducive to rehabilitation from trauma or displacement and eventual reintegration into society: they are subject to overcrowding, and thus the over-stretching of resources such as educational and medical services, food availability, and security. Housing and social programs are limited as well, so families live in tents without access to the real world or any chance of a normal life. Mental illnesses such as PTSD and depression are extremely common in war refugees from any country, but often go untreated in these facilities. Because camps are also required to abide by laws of a host country, refugees often can’t hold jobs or send their children to public schools.
My children should learn to write their names. It’s over for us, should it be over for our children as well?
— Rana, a Syrian refugee located in Mount Lebanon, November 20, 2015
We can’t blame host countries for the state of the refugee camps because their financial statuses limit what they can offer the newcomers, but we can analyze the consequences of having camps as one of the only options for the refugees. The lack of involvement in society and subsequent poverty, along with the trauma, lack of resources, and inconsistent lifestyle in the camps, pose enormous struggles for those who left home searching for peace. However, the most pressing issue with the camp situation isn’t just the conditions, but the fact that these structures are ultimately anything but temporary: the average refugee lives in a camp for 17 years.
More perspective: 17 years is the entirety of my lifetime. Babies living in the camps right now will be my age when they leave to start anew. They will have spent their entire lives in a place meant to be temporary. Many of them will have no education at all and most will have had limited, if any, exposure to the real world.
Pathos aside, I would argue that the U.S. has a responsibility to help in humanitarian crises — if, and only if, our aid is requested. In this case, it has been, but not by many: only 6% of Syrians specifically said that their host country of choice is in North America. Even still (ironically perhaps), rich countries generally are not helping to alleviate the misery refugees experience, despite our resources and economies being sufficient to support it.
Another obstacle to our involvement in resettling refugees is that our monetary priorities are not where they need to be. The budget for refugee resettlement in 2015 was $1.56 billion…
…which seems commendable, until you realize that Americans spent $2.6 billion on candy that Halloween.
Overall, Syrian refugees only want a place to stay until it is safe to return home. For most, their goal is to eventually return home and rebuild Syria, but how can we expect them to be able to do this when these underfunded camps are the best we will offer their families?
Myth #2: Refugees only want to come to the US to incite violence.
There is a word for the assumption that an entire group of people from a different region or culture is inherently “bad” or criminal: xenophobia. Another word to examine is “refugee” itself: it refers to someone seeking refuge, a safe place. Refugees, then, are for the most part fleeing violence, not searching for it or bringing it to host countries. They only want to be safe and healthy and provide as much for their families and children as they can.
Islamophobia, the unfounded fear or distrust of Muslims, has also been integrated into our media and normalized in our society. Politicians have furthered the discrimination.
Ted Cruz once said to Fox News that allowing “Syrian Muslim refugees” into the country is “nothing less than lunacy,” but that Syrian Christians deserve a “safe haven,” and Jeb Bush, too, shared discriminatory remarks: “I think our focus ought to be on the Christians who have no place in Syria anymore,” he said.
Let’s be honest here. If the children in the pictures we all see were white Christians, we would have done much more for them by now.
Some facts to remember about refugees, jihadists, and violence:
- The extremists that pose the biggest threat to America are white, right-wing US citizens, who are responsible for the deaths of nearly twice as many Americans as foreign Islamic extremists have been since 9/11.
- If you are an average person living in the United States, your chance of dying in a terrorist attack by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion.
- To put it in perspective, you’re more likely to be struck by lightning twice in your lifetime. The chances of that happening are 1 in 9 million. You’re even more likely to win a Powerball jackpot than to be killed by a refugee terrorist: your odds hover around 1 in 292 million.
- Since 9/11, roughly 9 Americans have died each year by the hand of foreign Muslims, but around 37,000 are killed in car accidents and 12,843 by guns (excluding the 21,334 suicides by firearm). If we really want to protect American lives, maybe we should look into restricting gun access, not people’s right to life.
Myth #3: Refugees would be bad for the economy (or, they will take “our” jobs).
When discussing refugees or immigrants in general, one of the most frequent arguments for opposition is that people coming into the country will compete directly against American citizens for limited jobs, but this isn’t really a concern.
Syrian immigrants are especially self-reliant: while 3 percent of U.S.-born workers and 4 percent of all immigrants to America are business owners, a staggering 11 percent of Syrian immigrants are. Accepting refugees would actually help the U.S. economy and offer new jobs for citizens.
Most of the time, though, refugees in general take jobs that citizens don’t want, even though this can be demeaning for them. Many who hold university degrees must hold jobs such as taxi-driving in their host country.
A larger percentage of Syrians hold advanced degrees (master’s, professional, or doctorate) than US-born citizens, with 27 percent of Syrian men holding one as opposed to between 10–13 percent of other groups (including American men and American women). Even still, they take undesirable jobs that they are overqualified to do instead of pursuing the careers they worked so hard for at home. And yes, they pay taxes.
That being said, let us remember that a person is worth more than the monetary value they can offer a community. We should accept more refugees into the United States not for economic reasons, but for our responsibility to protect our fellow humans’ right to live in safety.
Myth #4: Refugees aren’t vetted properly.
Refugees and immigrants alike undergo an intense vetting process. With all the talk recently about making it even more rigorous, it is important to remember that it’s already thorough, precise, and incredibly time-consuming. It can take years to be granted asylum or be considered for resettlement here.
The current vetting process entails twenty different steps, and only 1 percent of refugees are even referred for resettlement. To be considered, one must register with the United Nations, undergo an interview, and have refugee status granted. After that, they must interview with the State Department, undergo three separate background checks and three fingerprint screenings, and have their case reviewed again. (All Syrians applying must undergo two additional steps here already — without the Trump administration making it more difficult.) Then comes another extensive interview, this time with a Homeland Security officer. If the Department of Homeland Security approves a person, they then must be screened for diseases and pass a cultural orientation class before being matched with an American resettlement agency. Before leaving for the US, they go through another, multi-agency security check due to the long stretch of time between the initial screening and their departure. A final check ensues upon a refugee’s arrival in an American airport.
Clearly, the United States vetting system is intense as it is.
Fact: Refugees are people, too.
The biggest issue most people have when it comes to resettling refugees is simply a lack of understanding for the culture or religions in other countries. Top that off with being swayed by media or politicians’ rhetoric and fear-mongering, and we can see where the root of this problem lies.
The truth is that the truth can get muddled in media.
People educating themselves is the most reliable way to foster empathy and resolve these social issues. It can be very difficult to dig through the statistics to find the “human face” of the issue, so for more information and some of that perspective, watch:
- 4.1 Miles, a 20-minute, Academy Award-nominated mini film following the perilous boat journey from Syria to the Greek islands
- Salam Neighbor, an hour-long documentary in which 2 American college students spend one month in Za’atari, the most populous Syrian refugee camp in the world
The Syrian refugee crisis is not going away, and at this point, simple ignorance can no longer be an excuse. The facts are out there. It’s time we step up.