By Mariam Awaisi
On Monday, September 28, Critical Connections’ latest event – “The Syrian Refugee Crisis: Addressing Political and Humanitarian Dimensions” – brought the ongoing plight of Syrian refugees into sharp relief and close to home. Held at the Jones Library in Amherst and co-sponsored by the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, the panel discussion occurred just a day after a benefit concert event in Northampton – Songs for Syria – drew several hundred community members.
The first speaker of the evening was Basileus “Basil” Zeno, a Syrian activist, researcher, and PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. A refugee to the United States, Zeno’s presentation highlighted the rapid spread of Islamic State (IS) regime, whose relatively recent emergence in June 2014 has engendered a sweeping exodus of Syrians from their native land. According to Zeno, half of Syria’s 23 million citizens have been directly affected by the crisis. And Syria is now ranked 9th on the list of the world’s most fragile countries.
The refugee crisis has also resulted in increasing pressure both internally and externally, as Syrians flock to both Damascus and the Syrian coast as well as to surrounding nations such as Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, and Greece. Many risk their lives and livelihoods seeking refuge abroad. While several surrounding countries are shouldering this wave of refugees, some – notably, the Arabian Gulf nations – have not. Zeno shared the paradoxical example of the small but oil-rich nation of Qatar, which at one point claimed to have taken in numerous Syrians, when in fact the figure referred to migrants who had long been working there.
Along with these critical examples and statistics, Zeno also brought home the personal impact of the conflict. His own family, for example, was unable to secure visas to attend his graduate degree ceremony in the States. And Zeno himself has been unable to return home for the past four years. Earlier in the week he had learnt that his childhood friend had suffocated to death in the back of a truck while trying to flee to Europe.
Second to speak was Reverend Susannah Crolius, Coordinator of Outreach for the Western Massachusetts Refugee and Immigrant Consortium. In this role, Crolius engages community stakeholders to build strong education and advocacy partnerships – among others – with the goal of helping refugees to the United States thrive once they arrive.
With regard to refugee resettlement, Crolius asserted that the “whole scene locally, nationally, and globally has changed dramatically.” Domestically speaking, the United States regulates an annual cap of 70,000 of refugees from all countries, and often does not welcome this full amount. As the President determines this amount and from what countries refugees are accepted, such decisions are necessarily more political than humanitarian. At present, about 1,700 Syrians have been resettled in the United States – mostly in Michigan and Virginia – and President Obama has called for 10,000 more. Unfortunately, Crolius explained that the American system for refugee resettlement is often cumbersome, with local partners often receiving only short notice of incoming refugees’ arrival.
Crolius then shared several local updates regarding the Syrian population. Both Jewish Family Services and Ascentria Care Alliance have settled five Syrian families in the Pioneer Valley. While several hundred more are expected to arrive, “it’s not going to be a surge.” According to Crolius, those expected to come this past summer were held up due to processing and security clearance issues, such that larger numbers of Syrian refugees are expected to arrive beginning in October.
While the current state of affairs appears grim, there are signs of hope. First, the Syrian crisis has brought the term refugee “into the public consciousness.” The distinction between this term and that of “migrant” is critical. Where migrant connotes a sense of voluntarism in leaving one’s country, refugee implies a forcible, non-voluntary departure. In addition, refugees are registered with agencies, and can therefore receive benefits such as rations and medical care. Second, the White House Task Force on New Americans has produced a federal strategy/action plan on refugee integration. Crolius recommended the audience take a look at the document, entitled Strengthening Communities By Welcoming All Residents.
In closing, Crolius shared several strategies for helping refugees at the local level:
- Donate funds: The World Food Programme (WFP) and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are two of the many agencies in dire need of resources.
- Inform yourself: Learn about who Syrian refugees are and understand that they cannot all be lumped into a single group or demographic profile.
- Offer to teach an ESL class: There is a 2-year waiting list for ESL classes in Western Massachusetts.
- Go local: If you own a local business, consider hiring a refugee; or shop at establishments that employ refugees.
- Build religious partnerships: Work with religious establishments (e.g. mosques) and share information about Syrian refugees with these congregations.
As a follow-up to the Songs for Syria event, Marcy Eisenberg, one of the event organizers, then briefly took the stage. She encouraged the audience to donate to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) Foundation, one of whose chapter presidents spoke at the concert. According to Eisenberg, Syria is currently the “worst place in the world for medical professionals,” with physicians killed on a daily basis and many hospitals ravaged by bombing. SAMS – which began with a single full-time employee and now employs 75 – has since sent physicians to the affected region to provide vital medical treatment to local Syrians. “As much as we wanted to raise funds,” Eisenberg observed of the benefit concert, “we wanted to raise consciousness.”