The Weakest Among Us
A previous Thursday (12/3/2015), I went to a symposium on Refugees at Northwestern University, with a particular emphasis on the Syrian crisis. The discussion was moderated by WBEZ’s Jerome McDonald, featuring panelists T. Alexander Aleinikoff - United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, Robert Carey - Director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Ngoan Le - Illinois State Refugee Coordinator, and Suzanne Akhras Sahloul - Director of the Syrian Refugee Network (SRN). It was a fascinating event that illuminated many of the issues facing refugees, and bolstered my opinion that so many of the fears around Syrians entering the nation are unfounded.
My reasoning for this post is to shed light on Syrian Christians. However, before discussing their particular plight, it is worth mentioning a few of the key takeaways from the panelists.
A Primer on Refugee Resettlement
1. There are some 60 million externally, or internally displaced persons in the world. While living somewhere else, often in a precarious state, the majority these individuals (45 million) do not meet the UN’s definition of a refugee. To be considered a refugee, one has to have a legitimate fear of returning to their home community. One cannot simply be an economically driven migrant. The reasons for refugee status are most often political, ethnic, racial, or religious. Rwanda, in which Tutsis were slaughtered because of their ethnicity by the Hutus was a classic refugee situation. Similarly, European Jews had legitimate fears of reprisal upon returning to post-war Russia and Poland where pogroms were carried out. In other cases such Palestinian refugees, return is simply impossible as the land has been so thoroughly converted into Israeli territory.
2. Of those 15 million refugees, only approximately 1% are resettled per year by the UN, which conducts initial exploratory procedures before another nation takes them in. The UNHCHR often plucks refugees from camps in temporary host countries, but this is an arduously long process. The UN process is much more involved than I had realized, as refugees must have a retinal scan for tracking purposes. Beyond this, there are multiple interviews conducted, and screening against no fewer than eight lists for criminal, human rights abuses or terrorist membership. Finally, refugees are chosen contingent upon their ability to successfully integrate into their new home.
3. The United States by all indications has the most stringent refugee resettlement process in the world. Beyond the UNHCHR, asylum is offered to very few refugees on an annual basis. The US conducts its own interviews, does its own screening, and weighs many different factors before granting asylum. Typically speaking, a refugee must wait between 18-24 months (an important fact that I will come back to later). Despite the talk of flooding our nation, since the start of the crisis in 2011, fewer than 2,100 Syrians have been resettled. This is far below the 10,000 pledged by President Obama, and much lower than the 25,000 Canada will accept next year alone. It is worth mentioning however that the United States takes in about 70,000 refugees annually, of which Syrians are but a tiny percentage. Even this 70,000 is a dramatic reduction from the 250,000 accepted in 1980 following the Vietnam War.
4. Refugees say the biggest form of assistance they can be given is rent. In the American system, refugees only receive government benefits for a maximum of 8 months following resettlement. Rent assistance typically only lasts three months. Thus, most refugees must enter the workforce as soon as possible, largely forced into low-wage, low-skill jobs regardless of their previous work experience or educational background. Without language skills or qualified credentials, this can become a vicious cycle. As an aside, a college girlfriend’s father was a taxi cab driver, despite being a surgeon in his native Eritrea.
Following the moderated portion of the program, audience members came up an asked questions of the panelists. More than a few questions were directed at the Syrian Refugee Network asking specifically about Islamophobia. The SCN confirmed that Islamophobia (that is the irrational fear of Islam or Muslims) is the driving force for (largely, but not only) GOP governors to deny resettlement to Syrians. Some have advocated for a religious test, essentially barring Muslims while allowing Syrian Christians. The rationale goes that Muslim Syrians are more likely to be secretly terrorists, just waiting for a chance to enter so they can attack. As should be clear from above, a Syrian terrorist is incredibly unlikely to enter the US via refugee resettlement - they will be found out. The most recent mass shooting notwithstanding, we are still under much greater threat from homegrown mass shooters than from foreign born Islamic terrorists. In this regard, I agree that the rising tide of anger and hatred towards American Muslims and would be emigrants is severely misdirected.
A Uniquely At-Risk Population
However, one woman who came forward identified herself as Assyrian. She pleaded for the United States to be more proactive in resettling Christian Syrians. When the US official stated that we could not discriminate on the basis or religion, she retorted that Christians were under greater threat precisely because of the severe discrimination within Syria. As she continued her plea, a number of the Muslim women in attendance became noticeably agitated, voicing their displeasure as she spoke. And this women (unfortunately I’ve forgotten her name), wasn’t wrong. Christians are at greater risk than perhaps any other community aside from the Yazidis throughout most of the region. She reiterated that so many Iraqis fleeing war went to Syria, and were then forced back into Iraq. Thus Christians are trapped within two failed states, marginalized peoples even during the best of times.
I am personally in favor of prioritizing Christian Syrians (and Iraqis), but not for the reasons you’d expect. I do not consider Islam a barbaric religion, nor do I believe the average Muslim is a threat. After the past four years, life for almost all Syrians is untenable regardless of faith. There is no effective governance. Basic services have all but stopped. Most means of income have dried up, and the ability to sell one’s home or possessions within Syria is all but gone. Thus, almost all Syrians leave home with nothing but the clothes on their back, and perhaps a cell phone. However, most mainline Muslims will not be killed by ISIS or other factions for their faith. They will most likely not be subject to forced conversion, rape, or slavery. I have enormous empathy for all Syrians and Iraqis, but there is an existential crisis for the region’s Christians.
As the Assyrian woman explained, Muslims endure difficult conditions in Lebanese, Turkish, or Jordanian refugee camps. They however are not often killed nor raped in those camps, as are Christians. Even in these so called safe havens, the lives of Christians are precarious, a symbol of the hated West to many. The woman continued that ISIS (among others) is employing the policies of genocide: a) killing political and spiritual leaders, b) destroying cultural institutions such as the churches themselves and the art inside, c) killing the adult male population, d) claiming the women and children for their own and breaking up families, and e) forcing the wholesale migration from their homeland. She asserted that the Turkish genocide during WWI wasn’t just directed at Armenians, it was directed at Assyrians, Georgians, and Greek Orthodox communities.
Syrian (and Iraqi) Christians literally have nowhere to go. Surrounded by unfriendly governments, they cannot maintain their distinct identity in their homeland. Nearly 2,000 years of Christianity is being snuffed out before our eyes. Iraq had an estimated 1.3 million Christians in 2003. Ten years later it's fallen to 400,000. We are seeing the same effect among Syria's estimated 1.5 million Christians. I explicitly reference Assyrians, but their experience is common for other Christian communities in both Iraqi and Syria. Assyrian culture and their language, Aramaic is an unbroken chain stretching back nearly 5,000 years. Despite previous attempts to destroy this community, it has still endured, but for how much longer? Before the civil war, Syria was 10-15% Christian, representing the largest regional community after Lebanon and Egypt. However, even in such comparatively benign countries as Lebanon and Egypt, Copts and Maronites are fleeing in great numbers. Thus, the standard 18-24 month waiting period is simply a luxury of time Middle Eastern Christians do not possess.
The US prioritizes asylum for the most at risk populations. It has been done in the past. Unfortunately, there is not the political will. If Middle Eastern Christian communities disappear from the face of the earth, their blood is on our hands. We should not choose these Christians because the majority of Americans identify as such. Nor should we assume that their values, beliefs, culture, or skill sets are any more aligned with ours (mainline American) than any Muslim asylum seekers. Denying any Muslim immigration to the US solely because of their faith is backwards and barbaric. However, we must recognize the wholly unique plight of the Middle Eastern Christians.
Please talk to your local, state and federal representatives today about expediting the asylum process for the most at risk population of Syrians.
Senator Dick Durbin - Senator Mark Kirk - Representative Tammy Duckworth - Representative Luis Gutiérrez - Representative Jan Schakowsky - Representative Mike Quigley - Representative Danny Davis - Representative Bobby Rush - Representative Robin Kelly