The Syrian Refugee Experience: A Tormented Journey into the Unknown

Omar al-Muqdad

Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

The Syrian Refugee Experience: A Tormented Journey into the Unknown

Omar al-Muqdad – a prominent journalist, documentary filmmaker, and former Syrian refugee – writes a bi-monthly 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. CMS will be featuring this work in its weekly Migration Update and on its website.

The brutal war that has haunted Syria for almost seven years has displaced nearly five million Syrian civilians, forcing them to flee their war-torn home and seek consolation and protection from horrifying conditions. As human beings, the least we can do for those affected by this epic crisis is to try to empathize and understand their agony, and to recognize their essential humanity. This global crisis also requires collective action, particularly in addressing refugee protection needs in the Middle East and Europe. It is a global responsibility to aid the millions of refugees adrift in the world and to end their suffering. Yet the United States – the country that has so often stood at the forefront of refugee protection – has put a halt on the entry of many refugees and immigrants. Because of an unjustifiable fear, President Donald Trump has been pushing the United States to close its borders to refugees and immigrants, and has left the US refugee resettlement program in a state of chaos. Politicians, public intellectuals and others regularly question how to treat and view borders at this time of crisis. The refugees’ experience is being starkly documented by human right organizations, the United Nations, faith communities, and others. Their reports leave no doubt about the details or scope of this human catastrophe.

To understand the Syrian refugees experience from its roots, however, one has to know the kind of life choices these refugees had before fleeing their country. Living under the whip of a dictatorship, rebel militias, and, worst of all, the terrorist group ISIS, were the only choices for many Syrians, short of fleeing their homes. Even now, when the world is announcing the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the suffering has multiplied among Syrian civilians. In the recent battles with ISIS inside Syria, thousands of families have found themselves trapped in a war zone. While the US-led coalition were shelling the positions of the terrorist group, thousands of families living in these areas were forced to run away to safer places.

Most towns and suburbs of cities controlled by ISIS are completely destroyed. Homes, hospitals and schools have been flattened to the ground. Some areas were left with not a single sign to show that civilization ever existed there. To take for an example the latest fighting against ISIS in their stronghold city of Raqqa, east of Syria, the destruction is massive. Last month, a UN official declared that “at least four fifths of Raqqa city is now uninhabitable, partly because of material destruction, but also due to unexploded ordnance and a lack of electricity and water.” What’s worse is that a lot of areas controlled by ISIS are littered with some 8,000 mines planted by the so-called Islamic State. The risk of escaping these areas – without being killed by a mine, struck down by a hovering warplane or captured by ISIS – is enormous.

For two years, Fatima, a 28-year-old mother of two, who spoke to me in a recent phone interview, found herself and her two children stuck in a town near Raqqa that was controlled by ISIS. With the recently escalating fights against the terrorist group, she found herself continuously on the run in search of safety. She reached a point of desperation where she wished for the shelling and bombing to never stop so that ISIS fighters would hide, and she and her children could leave the pothole of hell in which they found themselves. “We were once a normal family, wife, husband and kids, just like any other family on earth,” she said, “my husband and I were living peacefully where our ultimate worry was the kind of education that we will offer our kids. We discussed normal issues of our future and the future of our kids. But alas, all our dreams are dissolved now.” Her husband was killed by ISIS in one of their raids on their town. She had to run for her life with her children to the unknown. The trip to a safe zone inside Syria took Fatima 21 days. During her journey, she and her children hid in safe houses, dealt with smugglers, and rode undercover in pickup trucks with sheep and goats.

Fatima’s story stands for those of many other Syrians who are fleeing the same kind of horror. Unfortunately the refugees’ agony never seems to end. These kinds of stories have swarmed my desk as a journalist every day for the past six years, overwhelming, exhausting and breaking me apart mentally and emotionally. It leaves you questioning the kind of help that can be offered to remove these people from their endless suffering and help them make it to safety. Fatima’s story, like hundreds of other horror stories I’ve heard over the last six years, keeps me awake at night.

What does this all mean to the world and to the President of the United States in particular? It seems to be that the civilians that get crushed in world conflicts are no one’s responsibility. Worse, once these refugees seek help, they get labeled a danger to national security. This entire attack on refugees and immigrants demonstrates how much this administration is misleading the public. It is very disappointing for the Trump administration to blame all national security problems on refugees and immigrants. Not to be able to distinguish between the victim and the criminal in these situations is a gross humanitarian failure, which will ultimately stigmatize this administration, not the refugees.

Furthermore, the administration’s attacks on migrants and refugees have wreaked havoc on immigrants who already live in the United States. Due to the irresponsible executive orders, many immigrants cannot leave the country without fear of being rejected for re-entry. Moreover, the futures of many immigrants are in limbo. Two Syrian professors, who are also a couple, have been waiting for six years to finalize their asylum status. They find themselves stuck in the United States with no apparent hope in the horizon. Because of the strict new laws against immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees are again facing threats of deportation to the unknown. They wait indefinitely to know what their status in this country will be, if any.

It is worth noting that even though Syrian refugees are considered a new wave of immigrants to the United States, much of the small Syrian immigrant community has been residing in the country since the late 19th century. According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 83,000 people born in Syria reside in the United States, accounting for less than 0.2 percent of the overall foreign-born population of 43.3 million. More notably, most Syrian immigrants are well-integrated into society and have higher levels of education and English proficiency than the overall foreign-born population.

It is unjustified to treat immigrants as a threat to the national security based on their country of origin, ethnic background, or religion. The United States, the country built by immigrants and refugees, has become a hostile environment for those seeking safe haven. The victims of terror and mistreatment cannot possibly inflict the same terror or threats as those from whom they are fleeing. The refugee experience, as painful and agonizing as it is, nonetheless has instilled in refugees values that the United States has always embraced – resilience, pushing forward against all odds, never quitting or giving up, and gratitude to their new country. These are the qualities and values refugees would bring to the United States today.

Author Names

Omar al-Muqdad

Date of Publication December 7, 2017
DOI 10.14240/cmsesy120717