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Who Are those Syrian Refugees Really?

Ammar Abdulhamid
Tuesday, November 24, 2015, 11:44 AM

By land, by sea and, occasionally, by air, they come carrying with them all what they have left in this bedlam world, which is often nothing more than the clothes on their back. They come seeking shelter and the promise of a better future for themselves, their children and their siblings. Many of them have probably lost a family member or more, many more, to Syria's five-year old conflict, and they have seen many horrors on their way. They arrive weary, injured and in some ways even broken and in need of healing, in need of compassion.

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By land, by sea and, occasionally, by air, they come carrying with them all what they have left in this bedlam world, which is often nothing more than the clothes on their back. They come seeking shelter and the promise of a better future for themselves, their children and their siblings. Many of them have probably lost a family member or more, many more, to Syria's five-year old conflict, and they have seen many horrors on their way. They arrive weary, injured and in some ways even broken and in need of healing, in need of compassion. Instead, they receive hate, suspicion, fearmongering and rejection.

In the last few days, leading American politicians have compared Syrian refugees to rabid dogs and E. Coli; called for favoring Christian refugees over Muslim ones, thus transforming the current situation into a kind of imaginary Muslim-Christian showdown and effectively playing by ISIS’s rules; and called for a registry of all Muslims.

As a Syrian asylee who found a safe haven in this country long before the revolutionary upheavals, and as a person whose life experiences took him from being a young radical Imam to an agnostic author and prodemocracy activist who strongly embraces secular values and advocates the right to heresy, I thought it incumbent upon me at this stage to contribute to the ongoing debating regarding Syrian refugees: who they are, what they want, and what can they bring with them by way of contributions.

Syria’s refugees are ordinary people who would have preferred to stay at home, or at least stay in any of the neighboring countries where the challenges of integration might have been less, shall we say, challenging. Instead, they “chose” to embark on a long life-threatening exodus to foreign land in search of security and hope.

Many people wonder what sort of parents risk taking their children with them on such risky journeys? The answer should obvious to everyone. Only those who have little choice in the matter would make this so-called choice. Even in the Middle East, children are not considered to be decorative pieces. Parents really do love their kids and worry about their future, and people don’t choose to risk the lives of their children unless choice in the matter is a mere illusion.

Whom are we dealing with here? Doctors, engineers, professors, farmers, craftsmen, laborers, artists, writers, filmmakers, journalists and students. We’re dealing with families and survivors of all stripes—with traditional practicing Muslims, mostly Sunnis, and with secular-minded professionals and intellectuals from all different backgrounds, including Christians, Druze and Alawites. And we’re dealing ethnically with Arabs, Kurds and Turcomen. And we’re dealing with millions of them.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: No people this large and diverse can be painted with one stroke unless prejudice is involved.

For many of the Syrian refugees, the plight began shortly after nonviolent protests broke out throughout Syria back in 2011. The protests sought punishment for corrupt, high-ranking officials and an end to cronyism, sham elections and continued intervention by security apparatuses in all aspects of life. President Bashar Al-Assad responded by resorting to overwhelming force in the hope of preserving his family’s rule. In the process, and in light of the international community’s befuddlement and indifference at a time when Russia and Iran showed no hesitation when it came to providing diplomatic, financial and logistical support to their ally, Mr. Assad managed to plunge the country into a civil war that tested the provincial and communal loyalties of the country’s main ethnic groups, effectively tearing the country apart. By mid-2012, Syria’s war had metastasized into a proxy war pitting an array of international and regional powers against each other. It also served to revive a monstrous creation—ISIS or Daesh—from its near-death state. Through indulgence, indifference, inaction, and external support (both direct and indirect), each side played its role in this modern-day, real-world Frankenstein experiment.

The result is one of the worst humanitarian disasters that the world has witnessed in decades; and now, just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, Western ignorance, xenophobia and fearmongering have stepped up to the podium, targeting the most vulnerable demographic of all: migrants and refugees.

Let me stipulate that we cannot discount the possibility of terrorist infiltrators among the refugees. But let’s also ask ourselves what the real risks involved in the current situation look like?

For the United States, the rigorous vetting process—which will take up to two years in each case—minimizes the risk involved considerably. In my and my family’s case, it took two and a half years before we were granted asylee status, even though we were already in the U .S., our case was well-documented, and my contacts with the U.S. government were quite high. In fact, I testified in front the U.S. Congress on a couple of occasions, and met the President of the United States at the time, George W. Bush, twice, one of them in the Oval Office, while our application was still being processes, and background checks were still being conducted. It took two more years after that before we were granted the Green Card, and only my son has so far received the American citizenship. His sister, my wife and I are still waiting, but hopefully, we will be able to vote in the 2016 elections.

More importantly though, the current debate in America is focusing on a small number of refugees: 10,000 to be precise; this is much less than 0.1% of the problem. As many commentators have noted, this doesn’t compare in any reasonable way to the number of people who come here through the visa waiver program or under tourist visas without having to go through a comparable process of evaluation.

This process stands in sharp contrast to the situation in Europe, where the risk is greater because authorities have no time to scrutinize anyone before the migrants have already arrived. And only one or two young men seem to have returned under the cover of being Syrian refugees to take part in the Paris Attacks. So yes, there’s a legitimate cause for concern here for Europe. But let’s keep things in perspective: over the preceding year Europe received more than 800,000 refugees, mostly from Syria, but also from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and other conflict-ridden states.

More importantly, and I cannot emphasize this point enough, Europe is a net exporter of terrorists to Syria, not the other way around. Most Jihadi suspects and elements, including some of those who took part in the Paris Attack, are known to have been first radicalized while still in their home countries: France, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Germany, among other countries. Some of them then chose to go to Syria to get training, before returning home, often by using their regular passports. This problem is not one of refugees. It is a problem with these countries’ citizens—and it is far, far bigger than any problem of infiltration of refugee populations.

The same observation could also apply to the United States where, according to U.S. intelligence reports, over 150 American citizens, including recent converts to Islam, are known to have travelled to Syria to join the ranks of various militias there, with some confirmed to have joined the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda.

To be sure, there could be more infiltrators among the refugees. Indeed, there probably are. But we’re talking about a handful, or a few dozen, potential terrorists. Is that really enough to exclude close to a million genuinely hurt people looking for shelter? If we are that risk averse there will be no reason for us to get up in the morning. We shouldn’t become desensitized to terrorism, but neither should we let the fear of it override our better judgement or our sense of decency and humanity.

At a time when the name Syria has come to be synonymous with the most bestial of killing, I want to say a word here in defense of my country on this very point: Syria is a country that has always been hospitable to refugees of all stripes. Syrians have welcomed refugees with open arms for centuries. Indeed, modern Syria is a place where Armenians, mostly Orthodox Christians, found shelter from the genocidal venture of the Ottomans. Over the last few decades, Palestinians, Iraqis and Lebanese—Sunnis, Shia and Christians—all have found haven there too. This only adds a somber, even macabre, quality to the rejection and fear that Syrian refugees are facing today.

Yes, it is shameful that not enough Muslim countries are opening their doors to Syrian refugees. But does this hypocritical attitude justify a similar one by Western countries? Saudi Arabia should certainly host more Syrian refugees. But who can blame a Syrian refugee who does not want to live under Sharia rule? When I left Syria in 2005 with my family, I confess that the thought of moving my wife and daughter to the Kingdom never crossed my mind. Sure, many of the refugees are traditionalists religiously speaking, but that doesn’t mean they are Wahhabis. And most traditionalist Syrians I know have no desire whatsoever to have a group of the sort of ignorant scholars produced by the Wahhabi establishment take charge of regulating their lives. That attitude by itself should alleviate many of the fears and doubts surrounding the basic beliefs of the Syrian refugees as a group.

To be sure, many traditional Muslims have problems with issues like women’s rights, homosexuality and perceptions of members of other faiths, not to mention those of their own faith who no longer follow the traditional teachings. But isn’t this a global phenomenon that affects Christians, Jews, Hindus and even Buddhists? And although there are Muslims who have problems with these issues, there are many others who do not. The percentages may not be the same as in Western non-Muslim circles, but the processes of modernization had a late start in Muslim communities, and many people simply need more time to pick up the necessary momentum. In any event, the influx of refugees is unlikely to change how these issues are being tackled in any of the Western countries involved.

Nor is it likely to negatively affect the economics of the host countries. Most refugees have enough skills and talents to become contributing members of society shortly after their arrival, and most want nothing but to prove that.

As for why second and third generation Muslim youths in Europe, and to a much lesser extent, the U.S. and Canada, are getting radicalized, the issue is more related to the socioeconomic conditions they experience in Europe and to a host of individual psychological conditions that young people from different faiths may experience and which propel people to join gangs and cults and commit heinous crimes on their own. People choose the elements of their faiths and their holy books that best suit the quirks and whims of their own minds and souls. So unless they are already prepared for radicalization, no one can radicalize them. This is where most of the fight against extremism ought to take place, and if there is any connection to refugees in this matter, it lies here: a better reception is in and of itself part of the fight against any potential radicalization down the road. People remember how the countries in which they end up received them—whether graciously or hostilely.

A better reception is also good for strategic reasons, especially in Europe’s case. After all, while the development of the refugee flow might have begun haphazardly, it couldn’t have continued without the tacit knowledge and approval of Turkish authorities. The growing fissures and divisions between European states as to what Europe can do, which states should do it, and who should finance it all has revealed to everyone the continued weakness of the fledgling entity that is the EU. And Turkey has an ax to grind on this point. Now Russia too is jumping into the game by opening its border checkpoints with Norway and allowing itself to serve as a most unlikely route for Syrians to reach Europe. The numbers are in the hundreds so far, but the message is clear.

Europe is, indeed, under attack, but it’s not under attack from refugees. And the reason she is under attack at this stage is related to Europe’s continuing inability to make sense of its new identity as a united entity. Europe may not have to speak with one voice on each and every issue, but she has to find ways for managing disagreements without turning them into existential threats. Agreeing on a clear policy towards the Syrian refugees and the Syrian conflict, one that is commensurate with European interests and values alike would constitute a significant step in this regard.

In moments of crises, we all tend to show our true colors.

Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian author and pro-democracy activist currently based in Silver Spring, Maryland where he arrived with his family as political refugees in September 2005. His recent book, "The Irreverent Activist," a series of brief reflections written over two decades, is now available through Amazon. He also blogs at and is a regular contributor to Lawfare.

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