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Syrian Refugees Are Survivors, Not Threats.

03 August 2017 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

"You can imagine how frustrating this situation was, and still is, for Syrian, Arab, and Muslim-Americans."AbedPic

As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to review President Trump's most recent Muslim Ban this coming October, our intern Abed Alsolaiman continues to share his personal reflections on the anti-Muslim, anti-refugee sentiment that underlies the travel bans. Abed is a student at Rowland Hall-Saint Marks, preparing to enter his final year of high school this fall.

The Arab Spring that started in 2010 precipitated a refugee crisis of massive proportions. My country of origin, Syria, was struck hardest. The Syrian revolution and ensuing civil war have brought a seemingly never-ending torrent of bad news to my family, and to the millions of others affected. Before the conflict, Syrians certainly did not expect that their homeland would become a hot-button political issue discussed on the news daily.

I definitely experienced the pain and loss of the war with family in Aleppo. I also got the opportunity to experience the refugee crisis up close. 

My family moved from the U.S. to Gaziantep, Turkey for about a year and a half, after the refugee crisis exploded. Gaziantep is a city not far from the Syrian border that has received a massive influx of displaced Syrian people in the last few years. The city is truly a melting pot of cultures; Syrians and Turks live side-by-side as the latest arrivals work to establish new lives. 

I attended several schools for displaced Syrians in Turkey. My classmates had all, at one time, led normal lives, and they all brought vestiges of their past with them. It’s still hard for me to see my peers as anything other than just that: they weren’t refugees to me, simply other students. Getting to know them on a personal level meant a lot to me. One kid was a natural artist and drew the most elaborate pictures on the whiteboard during breaks. Another idolized Bruce Lee and asked for my help translating some of Lee’s inspirational quotes into Arabic so that he could share them with his friends. Yet another fellow student dreamed of studying computer science in the U.S., and we would chat for hours about that sort of nerdy stuff.

But the impact of the war was undeniable; it hung over all of our heads to some degree. The whiteboard artist had to return to Syria at the end of the academic year because his family simply couldn’t afford to stay in Turkey. The kid who loved Bruce Lee? Both his parents had been killed in the routine bombings of his hometown.

However, the Syrian students were anything but helpless victims. They learned to work hard and roll with the punches, out of necessity. Even after escaping a war zone, refugees faced a precarious situation in Gaziantep. These Syrian academies were usually underfunded and overwhelmed. They could fall apart or completely change overnight, forcing us to find somewhere else to study.  Nonetheless, the students were undeterred. As Syrians, we had to stay on our feet, ready to adapt to anything. 

The resilience I saw among the Syrians was astounding. These refugees forged new lives out of almost nothing, while maintaining their own individuality.

However, the political atmosphere in America remained largely indifferent or hostile to this population of people, forced out of their homes by no fault of their own. Some media outlets cast them as subversive invaders, with the various threats posed by the refugees varying by the source of the news. They could rape, dilute the gene pool, or commit acts of terror. The underlying point was simple: Muslim refugees are dangerous. The fact that Muslim refugees have never committed an act of terror in the U.S. seemed to have no bearing on large segments of public opinion.

 You can imagine how frustrating this situation was, and still is, for Syrian, Arab, and Muslim-Americans. People family who had lived in America for large portions of their lives and had bought the concept of an “American Dream” – like my own family – were met with vitriol. When we spoke, we were ignored…and then bigots would blame us for not “speaking up” in response to acts of terrorism. An increasingly unstable situation in the Middle East allowed pundits to point fingers at people who had nothing to do with the situation. All of this coincided with constant bad news and fear for our families abroad.

It should not come as a surprise that consistently toxic public discourse paved the way for the populist, nationalist surge of now-President Donald Trump. He campaigned on an openly anti-Muslim platform. Actually, he very much ran an “anti” campaign: anti-civility, anti-Latino, anti-poor, anti-liberal. My point is that a very specific set of circumstances and public opinion against Muslims made President Trump and his subsequent Muslim Bans our reality.

I would love to end this blogpost with a solution, but that is essentially impossible with such a deep-seated and complicated issue. Instead, I will offer an anecdote:

My mother and I lived in Albany, New York, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. She is an obviously Muslim woman, dressed in the traditional headscarf. As a medical student, she felt that her classmates viewed her with suspicion, and she faced verbal discrimination in other places.

One day, as she was finishing her business at the local post office, an elderly Caucasian man approached her. Given the circumstances, she initially felt on edge. But the man kindly asked her whether she had faced any problems with bigotry and whether he could help her in any way. This small gesture struck with my mother more deeply than any hurt she experienced. 

I share this story to show the power of ally-ship in difficult settings. Even as we advocate for reform at an institutional level, we must also do our work at the interpersonal, grassroots level. This is where much of the worst hatred begins. In our daily lives, we can cut bigotry off at its source, conversation by conversation. It’s the least we can do, and it goes a long way.              

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