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.
A refugee is someone who cannot return home because of a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of religion, race, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. In a narrow legal sense then, refugees are defined, in part, by what they cannot do. Diana Khatib has lived in the United States since 2015. She previously studied history at Damascus University. She described her experience as a long, continuous nightmare. “Some people think that we are happy about being refugees,” she told me. “It’s completely the opposite.” She never thought that she would have to leave her life behind with no hope of returning in the near or even distant future.
In contrast to refugees themselves, states have many options when it comes to refugees. However, most developed states seem stuck in an endless cycle of debate between those who want to reduce human suffering and those who would seemingly prefer to hide behind any pretext to avoid helping refugees.
Politicians often treat refugees as political pawns, whether for public support or financial gain, without any consideration for human dignity. President Erdogan of Turkey has used this humanitarian crisis to exert pressure on the European Union. He recently pointed out that the “EU must be thankful for their security as Turkey hosts 4 million Syrian refugees.” Lebanon, in turn, is threatening to repatriate refugees, regardless of the terrible current situations in their home countries, unless the international community provides it with additional funding. President Trump blames refugees and immigrants for many of that nation’s problems. Even after his cold arguments have been repeatedly exposed and debunked, he continues using them.
Over the last eight years, a virulent form of nationalism emerged in many states, leading to opposition to refugee resettlement and to support for the forcible repatriation of refugees. This perspective fails to consider the conditions in these countries and ignores that fact that these refugees did not leave their countries in normal circumstances and cannot return any time states want them to.
In July 2014, for example, a barrel bomb destroyed Ziad Nasser’s house and left it in ruins. The 35-year-old man and father of two left his home in eastern Aleppo in early 2014 after a massive air raid destroyed his entire neighborhood. “My house was crushed to the ground,” Ziad told me. “Thank God I took my family and left when the war reached the area; otherwise, I might [have] end[ed] up with my family under the ruins.”
It is not easy to start from scratch and to rebuild all your dreams and your community. Dr. Abdullah Alhariri recently left southern Damascus with lots of memories and nightmares. Damascus had been heavily bombarded for years and was under siege, as the Russian and Syrian regimes were determined to take it back from the rebel forces. “The Russians gave us three options,” he said. “You leave the area, or you surrender to the regime or we will turn your city into a lump of sugar, namely we will crush it to the ground. So under this condition, we left, and now I am in Turkey trying to recover from the horror I saw there.”
Sometimes it is the failure to stand the shoes of refugees that prevents a full understanding of this issue. This was true even for me, who volunteered to help Iraqi and Lebanese refugees in Syria between 2004 and 2006 before later becoming a refugee myself. This is what I learned as a refugee. Refugees do not just wake up one morning wanting to be refugees; this condition is forced on them. They seek safety, not to harm their new communities. The vast majority cannot return home. They need help, not indifference or political posturing. Unless states exercise their options to find refugees durable solutions, the options of the refugees themselves will be very limited.