A plea for Syrian refugees: ‘never again’
Having spent a career helping women and civil society activists in the most challenging places on Earth, we thought we had seen the worst man could do. Helping society rebound in the killing fields in Cambodia; documenting Saddam’s genocide in northern Iraq; helping resolve conflicts during the violent transition from apartheid to majority rule in South Africa; working to empower moderate women and activists in the face of extremism in Gaza; and secretly supporting women’s rights under the draconian Taliban in Afghanistan — none of this prepared us for the scale of the horror that reigns in Syria today.
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The Democracy Council has been working in Syria for more than 10 years: We know who the good guys are and who the terrorists are. Our friends and colleagues risk their lives every day to fight terror and extremism. Walking through a makeshift hospital for Syrians run by a German group Uossm (pronounced “awesome”) in Reyhanli, Turkey, a few months ago, we saw hundreds of amputees, mostly children. We decided immediately that it was not only our moral, humane duty to help relieve the suffering, but it was also in America’s national interest to help save a generation and not give in to terror.
We thought raising some money to cover the salaries of teachers of internationally recognized curriculums, and doctors to provide basic medical services to women and families that we know in refugee camps inside Syria and Turkey would never be viewed as anything other than positive, charitable work. The issue is simple: Syria has a devastated population that faces a choice of living under a violent dictatorship and religious fanaticism or fleeing. A few quick phone calls elicited a host committee comprising a panoply of our local community: Republican and Democratic members of Congress, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis, a Methodist pastor, women’s rights leaders, Syrian Americans, Jewish Americans, etc. Never did we anticipate any negative reaction from any American.
Boy, were we wrong.
Some of the feedback opposing a benefit to support the refugees referenced the individual’s opposition to helping “Arabs.” Some claimed that such efforts helped facilitate the Paris bombings. Many contained threats with an attempt to correlate support to the refugees as support for ISIS. Unable to fully contain myself, I found myself asking how teaching a 6-year-old how to read or providing prenatal care to expectant mothers who fled their homes to get away from extremists was supporting those very same extremists? The question generated the typical, ‘You don’t know what you are doing’ conversation-killer being repeated by many from the far right.
The number of dead, displaced and mutilated since 2011 is well known. As a state-sponsor of terror, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s dictatorship is rivaled only by the horrific atrocities perpetrated by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The mass devastation was brought home to my organization in the past few weeks, even before the Paris bombings woke up the general public. In the last three weeks alone, two colleagues reporting on ISIS terror were beheaded in Turkey. A friend working to train Syrian independent journalists was found hanged in the Istanbul airport. This does not even take into account the ever-growing list of activists killed in Syria every day fighting for the basic rights and freedoms that we take for granted.
Roughly one in four Syrians has been forcibly displaced by the violence and extremism of Assad and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This includes every sector of the population — women, children, the elderly, Christians and Muslims. There is a whole generation of Syrians ages 5 to 16 that is not receiving basic health care or primary education. They are not terrorists. They are children who, without support, will grow up without hope, education or any ability to ever provide for themselves. They are not migrants, but refugees, defined by the United Nations High Commissioner as “persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution. These are people for whom the denial of asylum has potentially deadly consequences.” History unequivocally shows us that the fires of extremism are fed with ignorance and hopelessness. This underscores the fact that in addition to our human duty to provide basic services to those in need, it is in America’s national security interest to support stable, educated, healthy communities that will not succumb to the hateful propaganda of ISIS out of sheer desperation.
Thoughtful people may disagree over the process by which the United States admits refugees. (Although, being intimately familiar with the interagency vetting and interviewing process and the two-year wait time, we are unsure how the screening process could be improved.) But this is another conversation that should not impact the ability to provide emergency relief and basic services to those desperately in need. To do otherwise as a response to overly partisan domestic politics is to give the terrorists what they want — irrational fear — and diminish who we are as Americans and our promise of “never again.”
James Prince is president of the Democracy Council and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University. Jonathan Tamayo is a graduate student at Pepperdine.