Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this article, it was reported that 700,000 refugees came into the US during the 2015 fiscal year. The correct number is 70,000, reported by the New York Times.
The Paris terrorist attacks. Suicide bombings in Beirut and Baghdad. The university killings in Kenya. The natural disasters that rocked Mexico and Japan.
With everything that has happened in the past few weeks (the Kenya massacre happened in April but didn’t manage to make headlines until recently), it’s no wonder that our country is still trying to regain its balance while also dealing with our own issues surrounding race, school shootings and gun control.
We are afraid, probably for good reasons, but I think we’ve let our fear get the best of us and helped us get more than a little ahead of ourselves, especially concerning the 10,000 Syrian refugees the Obama administration plans to accept into the country over the next year.
Many Americans have an opinion about whether or not the country should continue accepting Syrian refugees. Thirty-one governors have said they will not let refugees into their states, although their legal ability to refuse refugees is questionable at best.
I formed an opinion about this issue straight away, but it wasn’t until I sat down to write about the Syrian refugees did I realize that despite my strong opinion on the topic, I didn’t know why these people are refugees in the first place.
Everyone seems to know that Syria is a “war-torn” country, but beyond that, details are sparse.
Many of the news articles that have come out over the last week about the U.S. accepting refugees have failed to remind us why these people are fleeing their country. Millions of people have been reduced to nothing more than numbers and a label in our media – silhouettes painted in our minds, the details of their tragic lives escaping our notice.
The Syrian civil war started in 2011 as the authoritarian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad (and backed by Iran and Russia, according to the BBC), started cracking down on pro-democracy demonstrations. The use of heavy-handed force only spurred more of the country’s citizens to call for the President to step down from power.
By 2013, more than 90,000 people had been killed. Between 300 and nearly 2,000 of those deaths have been attributed to chemical weapons that were launched around the capital of Damascus.
The weaponized chemical used was sarin, a nerve agent that was classified by the UN as a weapon of mass destruction in 1991. Death by sarin is quick, but not painless. The chemical paralyzes the lung muscles, causing the victim to suffocate within minutes. Those who miraculously survive suffer permanent neurological damage.
Assad agreed to a complete removal or destruction of his regime’s chemical weapons (fearing direct U.S. intervention), a mission lead by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
By this point, the war became sectarianized as the Sunni Muslim majority of the country started fighting against Assad’s secretive Shia Alawite sect. This religious split has drawn neighboring countries into the war and opened the way for religious extremists, like the Islamic State, to gain a foothold.
The death toll rose to 250,000 last August.
Since the start of the war, more than four million refugees have fled the country, roughly a quarter of the country’s population.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated that women and children make up 75 percent of the refugee population. Close to 40 percent of refugees are children.
A further seven and a half million more Syrians have been displaced inside the country, where the UN says 5.6 million children are in need of humanitarian assistance.
A published UN report estimates 80 percent of Syrians now live in poverty.
“War-torn” certainly doesn’t do this sort of devastation justice.
And yet, this country’s leaders are trying to find a way to turn these refugees away from a safe-haven that tells the rest of the world to send to it their homeless and tempest-tossed masses.
Although recent events are causing the country to hyper-focus on Syrian refugees, they only make up 2 percent of all the refugees that came into our country during the last fiscal year, according to the New York Times.
More than 70,000 refugees came into the U.S. during the 2015 fiscal year, the largest groups from Myanmar (nearly 20,000 refugees), Iraq (around 13,000 refugees), and Somalia (around 8,000 refugees).
Washington State alone has received 33,000 refugees since 2003 from all around the world, including Iraq (3,700 refugees) and Iran (1,200). Only 25 Syrian refugees have settled in this state.
Out of the 2,500 Syrian refugees taken in by the US since 2011, 50 percent are children and the rest evenly split between men and women. Only two percent of refugees were single men of combat age.
The screening procedure we use to check out Syrian refugees takes between 18 and 24 months, has an acceptance rate of 50 percent and already involves the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the National Counterterrorism Center, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State and the Department of Defence.
Despite this, the House of Representatives recently passed a piece of legislation that would put new screening procedures in place, requiring the director of the FBI, the secretary of Homeland Security and the director of national intelligence to confirm each Syrian and Iraqi refugee admitted into the country poses no threat.
But these refugees are families who want a quality life, parents and children seeking asylum from a war that has shattered their country. They deserve our compassion and understanding, not scrutiny and suspicion (they just went through nearly two years of that during the screening process).
With that in mind, families in Washington can volunteer through various agencies like the International Rescue Committee in Seattle or World Relief Seattle to host refugees before they are moved into homes of their own.
I stand with Governor Jay Inslee and the other 12 states that have vocalized their support for these refugees.
Only by putting our fears aside will we find our balance again.