Since the civil war in Syria began in 2011, the United States has admitted less than 1,000 refugees, a miniscule percentage of the estimated 7.6 million people displaced by the crisis, 50% of which are children, according to USAID. On September 20th, Secretary of State John Kerry announced the cap of refugees admitted to the U.S. would be increased from 70,000 to 100,000 by 2017. In contrast, Germany plans to take in 800,000 by the end of this year, with a recent poll showing that 88 percent of Germans have either donated clothes or money to refugees, or plan to do so.
The Syrian refugee crisis is a combined result of two distinct phenomenon — the sheer number of people being forced to flee from conflict and persecution, the biggest humanitarian crisis of our era, and the failure of international community to step up and provide support and resources that are necessary to cope with these challenges in a satisfactory manner that complies with international law, ensuring people are treated in a humane fashion,” says Christopher Boian, Public Information Officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Mr. Boian emphasized awareness as one of the key components for the world to handle the Syrian refugee crisis. He adds, “it’s very important to make sure everybody in all parts of the world are aware of what is happening and what the human consequences are of these conflicts. I think once people really focus on and understand what’s at stake and what the priorities are, I think then people and governments are more inclined to take the steps that are required.”
The estimated numbers to be resettled in the United States are merely a small fraction that insufficiently helps the world’s largest refugee crisis on record. The United States has led in terms of the amount of money provided in aid to Syrian refugees, but with that role as leaders comes the be responsibility of offering refuge to Syrian refugees, of which the United States is sorely lagging behind many European and Middle Eastern nations. In 2013, the United States lagged behind the amount of asylum seekers they took in per 1 million people of their population, with the UK, Italy, France, Belgium, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, Norway and several other countries receiving more than double to over times more asylum seekers than the United States. If the United States should assume a leadership role in this humanitarian crisis, it means taking in a larger proportion of refugees.
Countries in the Middle East have been taking most of Syria’s refugees, despite not having the resources the United States has to help them; 1.8 million have fled to Turkey, 1 million to Lebanon, and 600,000 to Jordan.
“The vast majority of Syrian refugees are still living in neighboring countries in the region — Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, but those countries’ infrastructures are at a breaking point,” says a spokesperson from the organization, World Vision, Lauren Fisher, in an interview conducted via e-mail. “For example, in Lebanon one in every four people living there currently is a Syrian refugee. Assistance in these countries for critical areas like food has been cut again and again, due to lack of funding. A refugee in Lebanon now receives just $13 to buy food for an entire month. Refugees living outside formal camps in Jordan were told they would no longer receive any food voucher assistance at all as of August of this year. This is forcing refugees to make increasingly difficult decisions. For some, this is pulling their children out of school and sending them to work. For others it is giving their teenage daughters in marriage to have one less mouth to feed.”
Miss Fisher encourages people to view the refugees as individuals, instead of as a group, as it makes it easier to view them with compassion instead of fear. Many of those fears are predicated on the false assumptions that refugees resettled in the United States will be a drain on food stamps, healthcare, and welfare programs has no basis. Refugees pay taxes. Their travel costs are repaid to the U.S. government through a zero interest loan to help them get on their feet once resettled, where they become upstanding contributors to American society. The use of welfare funds to assist them are only on a short-term basis. Refugees utilize the opportunities in America to become important contributors to society.
Albert Einstein was a refugee that came to the United States to escape the Nazis. The 2013 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, Martin Kaplaus, also resettled in the U.S. as a refugee at eight years old. Other famous refugees include former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, and Grammy nominated musician Regina Spektor. There is no evidence to suggest that refugees drain the systems or don’t contribute to the communities they are resettled in.
“I was fortunate to reach a refugee camp in northern Kenya where I lived for seven years on one meal a day until the U.S. Congress introduced a program to settle 3,000 South Sudanese boys to the United States. I was among the first to be settled here in 2000,” writes Sudanese Refugee John Ajak on the Department of the Interior’s website, where he now works as a Petroleum Engineer after earning his Master’s in Engineering Management at George Washington University. “CBS News named us the “Lost Boys of Sudan.” We were accustomed to surviving to see the next day, not the future. I was 16 when I settled with a family in Souderton, Penn. For these reasons, I feel fortunate to be giving back to the American public through the Department of the Interior’s mission.”
World Vision spokesperson Lauren Fisher shared some personal stories her staff as come across while assisting Syrian refugees:
First that of six-year-old Noor, who was from Syria. Her mother Tesadi was a teacher before they were forced to flee. She told our staff that Noor looks to her mother in alarm when a helicopter or plane passes overhead. Teasadi says her children expect that bombs will fall when they see aircraft. Those fears follow them. Staff also shared the story with me of Ahmed, 7, who has never been to school. His father, Hassan, says he had to take his family and leave to give his children a life and school.
“There is no life in Syria; and the schools were all destroyed,” he said to our staff. And there are so many similar stories I have heard from children in Jordan and Lebanon when I was there — children who have seen unimaginable horrors of war. And also children who went from being typical kids with Barbie dolls and school lessons to working in fields or factories as the main provider of income for their family. That is perhaps what is the hardest for me to hear when I’ve talked with families in Lebanon or Jordan.
Most describe a life prior to the conflict in Syria that you or I would recognize — working as dentists, college professors, taxi drivers — all with a home, a mortgage, a car or two. Their children had their own rooms, played with typical children’s toys and expected to go to college someday. Now they are living in tents or abandoned buildings, weighing the sorts of impossible decisions I talked about earlier — whether to send their children to work, whether to try to risk the trip to Europe.
The fear of terrorism does not excuse America’s moral obligation and role as a global leader to take in more Syrian refugees. In order for other countries to do more, the United States needs to help lead in resettling refugees. Monetary aid is not enough; we should embrace the opportunity to integrate some of Syria’s refugees into our communities.
The United States is a country of immigrants, which is what makes America such a great country, because of its diversity and culmination of different cultures. People have come to America for hundreds of years. A 443-page study published in September by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine analyzed the assimilation of immigrants in the past 20 years and found that common xenophobic assumptions are all untrue.
“The United States prides itself on being a nation of immigrants, and the country has a long history of successfully absorbing people from across the globe,” writes the leading author of the study, Harvard Sociologist Mary Waters. “The integration of immigrants and their children contributes to our economic vitality and our vibrant and ever changing culture. We have offered opportunities to immigrants and their children to better themselves and to be fully incorporated into our society and in exchange immigrants have become Americans – embracing an American identity and citizenship, protecting our country through service in our military, fostering technological innovation, harvesting its crops, and enriching everything from the nation’s cuisine to its universities, music, and art.”