Omar al-Muqdad – a prominent journalist, documentary filmmaker, and former Syrian refugee – writes a regular blog for CMS titled, “Dispatches from the Global Crisis in Refugee Protection.” This series covers the Syrian Civil War, the experiences of Syria’s immense and far-flung refugee population, the global crisis in refugee protection, religious persecution, and US refugee and immigration policies. Mr. al-Muqdad’s work has been featured by the BBC, CNN, and in many other media outlets. Resettled in the United States in 2012, Mr. al-Muqdad became a US citizen in Spring 2018. CMS features this series in its weekly Migration Update and on its website.
Whenever I write about refugees, I remember journalist Louis Yako’s words: “As we were leaving the camp, I wondered whether refugee and IDP [internally displaced person] camps are a sign of compassion toward displaced people, or are they signs of how far humans have gone in causing harm to each other?” With a new year on the horizon and the world focused on the coronavirus pandemic, another harsh winter has arrived at the door of the squalid refugee camps where hundreds of thousands struggle to survive and retain their human dignity. Many harsh winters have passed over Syrian and many other refugees with what seems like total indifference from the world’s governments, including some who were strongly committed to refugee acceptance in the past.
There is no doubt that the past four years of Donald Trump’s leadership in America have been calamitous for human rights. The rise of far-right movements in the West, the objection to admitting refugees, and the shamelessly xenophobic rhetoric used against entire nations have been hallmarks of Trump’s presidency. Humanitarian crises have raged around the globe with little positive attention from the leader of the free world. This is a tragic turn from America’s roots, as a nation founded by men seeking freedom from tyranny. Over the course of its history, the United States has at times set an international example for human rights actions. For example, it helped to found the United Nations, resettle refugees, and establish the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees in the aftermath of the Holocaust and other atrocities from World War II. Trump’s presidency represented a repudiation of its humanitarian values, and on a global scale, people have suffered from his lack of commitment to or ignorance of these needs.
The Trump administration’s policies have allowed nativist and discriminatory attitudes towards foreigners to fester internationally. One example is an incident in Lebanon a few days ago in which a Syrian refugee camp was set ablaze, razing the structure. According to a source on the ground, the incident occurred at 9:00 p.m. when unidentified persons fired bullets in the air, detonated gas canisters, cut off the electricity to the camp, and then burned it entirely to the ground. Children cried, and their panicked, barefoot parents fled with them, but security and police did not arrive until a full hour after the blaze expired. The source adds that the incident he witnessed was “brutal, racist, and inhumane.” The attack is symptomatic of Lebanon’s attitude towards refugees in recent years, as the country’s government has not fulfilled its humanitarian obligations despite receiving significant financial aid for that purpose. Meanwhile, the nation of Turkey prefers to use refugees on their territory as political leverage in an ongoing struggle with the European Union.
But with Joe Biden’s impending inauguration, a spark of hope has been lit in dark and dank refugee camps for a new era of the United States as a humanitarian superpower. Abdul Qadir is a Syrian refugee, father of three, who fled Syria and is now living in a refugee camp in Jordan. Abdul had been given permission to enter the United States in 2016, but Donald Trump’s purportedly “anti-terrorist” travel ban crushed Abdul’s hopes of finding a new life in America, sending his children to a real school and leading a normal life again, which would mean resuming his beloved career as a carpenter. The announcement of Biden’s presidential victory has given Abdul renewed hope that those dreams may become reality. “I hope that Uncle Biden [as Abdul calls him] takes our situation into consideration, as we cannot return to Syria, but at the same time cannot stay forever in this refugee camp. And everything has worsened with the spread of the coronavirus.” Speaking on the attack on the Lebanese refugee camp, Abdul opined, “Hopefully, this tragedy will expose the racism and hate which has risen in the past few years.” Hopefully too it will create many new opportunities for refugees to move away from unsafe, squalid conditions where they have no future, to communities where they can rebuild their lives.
December 30, 2020