I recently took a humanitarian aid trip as part of a team tasked to work with Syrian and Iraqi refugees in villages in rural Jordan. The stories I heard exposed the tragic effects of war and gave fresh insight into the damaging mindset we have developed in the West towards this crisis. I hope to challenge this mindset by outlining a way forward.
First, let me give you a little personal insight. I am 21 and grew up in Bradford, England. I am a law graduate, culturally British whilst carrying an American passport. I have been living in Jerusalem, Israel for the last year as a human rights intern in a non-profit organisation. Like many, I received a leftist, liberal education and consider myself a passionate humanitarian. As it relates to refugees, I have often believed politics to be an institution that only serves to dehumanise a hurting people, and have therefore endeavoured to avoid it. A naïve perspective, I know – ‘politics’ inevitably intersects an issue as publicly contentious as the refugee crisis. But it took a trip to Jordan on what was, ironically, a humanitarian trip, for me to reach the conclusion that humanitarianism alone without some political action, will not be enough to make a difference in this crisis.
The journey across the border from Israel to Jordan proved relatively straightforward: pay the Israeli exit fee, stop briefly at the duty free to spritz the perfumes, board a bus, ride five minutes across the border, pay for my Jordanian visa, smile for a photo, and call a taxi. Uneventful, apart from acquiring another stamp in my passport, which is always exciting for those who love to travel. Once in Amman, we settled into the guesthouse before heading out to share an evening meal with a local Syrian family. They had now been Jordanian residents for several years, entering shortly after the war began in Syria.
Our hosts had graciously agreed to cook a traditional Syrian meal for us that night. Two options quickly presented themselves to our team: cook or clean up after the meal. Naturally I opted for the former, because – let’s be honest – with cooking, the end result is food. So, I peeled potatoes and garlic cloves, sliced pita bread and listened eagerly as the family talked me through the culinary preparation of five Syrian dishes that incorporated rice, beef, okra, tomatoes, roasted almonds and a multitude of spices. Watching this couple work together became a touching lesson of service, consideration and love. The few introductory details I had been given about their story centred on hardships. While that was evident, it did not dominate their relationship. Rather, they seemed to recognise the gift they had in each other, and it was the hope to which they clung.
The husband possessed a better command of English than his wife. Over dinner, he recounted their journey from a contented lifestyle in Syria to living in limbo in Jordan. Originally from Damascus where the husband had practiced law, the family chose to leave Syria after realising the danger they faced:
“I had just finished our daughter’s nursery room when the war started. Then missiles started coming. Our home was destroyed, there’s nothing there anymore.”
They fled with just the clothes on their backs and a bag of supplies for their young daughter, taking a taxi out of Damascus before sunrise. From there they travelled to Lebanon and boarded a flight to Jordan. They entered legally as tourists, believing as many did, that they would return home within a few months. However, one year on with no hope of return, they applied to the UN for refugee status, and were refused. Due to their initial legal entry as tourists, they were informed that they did not qualify for refugee status. Their situation has been unchanged for the past four years. Every year, they have applied anew to the UN. Each year, they are refused without explanation. Where does this leave them?
The family has long outstayed their tourist visa for Jordan, but without refugee status and no home left in Syria, they have nowhere to go. Again, the husband’s words over dinner: “In Jordan, I can’t even work. I am educated, but can’t find a job. Here, we have nothing.”
Most Syrians have gone from stable jobs, families and homes into an uncertain life entirely dependent on the aid of others. They can claim neither job, friends nor even refugee status. It’s easy to see why these situations look hopeless.
I left their home that evening with mixed emotions. I was humbled by the strength they displayed; yet frustrated at my utter helplessness to aid them in their situation. From a legal perspective, my head spun with ideas for helping them achieve refugee status, while wondering about the legal system in Jordan and the facilities available for refugees.
I recognised afresh, the importance of humanitarian aid to assist in the day-to-day life of this family, but was struck with the temporariness of this assistance. Our response to the refugee crisis seems akin to providing a plaster for a broken bone, when the true need is long-term and foundational so an entire life may be rebuilt. And this is just one family! There are hundreds of thousands more just like them.
So what does this have to do with the West?
The refugee crisis has come to our doorstep. The UN Refugee Convention – an instrument of international law – and the principle of non-refoulement dictate that unless an individual presents a threat to national security, we cannot legally return refugees to a nation where their life may be endangered or crucial human freedoms violated. We in the West have been proud advocates for such human rights laws. If we care as much about these rights as we claim to do, we must be willing to shoulder the work needed to secure them for refugees. Otherwise, we are hypocrites.
Most societies, relying on news reports and social media, have linked the refugee crisis to terrorism, responding largely from fear of the latter. Since the war in Syria sent refugees flooding to the West, refugees as an entire group have been force-fit into one of two exclusive boxes: human beings in need or radical Islamists who must be resisted. We are pressured to act towards all refugees by giving our allegiance to one view alone. Why not both?
Naturally, the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels put people on edge. These attacks demonstrate the existence of violent individuals. We know they cannot be stopped entirely, without completely shutting our borders. Even that won’t keep out the homegrown terrorists. We are scared because the threat is, indeed, real. Still, while we recognise these fears, our morality and humanity impel us to open our doors, because many refugee families are just as scared of radical Islamists as we are.
In other words, we cannot distinguish easily, on the ground, between “those in need” and “radical Islamists”. Both are unavoidably present in the refugee flood from Syria. They have been mixed together and we’re terrified that we can’t tell the difference.
How then, shall we reconcile these two mindsets? By urging both the fear-mongers and the “welcome everyone” supporters, to act. Both have valid views. Both are uniquely skilled at running their mouth while their feet stay still. The fear-mongers commonly ask important policy questions that need to be addressed, and the “welcome everyone” supporters encourage a mindset of local action.
Our convictions, whatever they may be, must be coupled with practical, yes even political, solutions. These often fall under integration.
Integration encompasses a multitude of issues – culture, language, education, work, jobs, economy, healthcare, welfare, benefits, religion, and more. It raises many questions. How many refugees can we, realistically, take? What facilities will we set up to help them integrate? What about language classes? Will families receive benefits if they have children and cannot find work? Shall they be given access to our free (in the UK) healthcare? For how long? And who pays for all of this? How?
These issues do not rest solely on the shoulders of the politicians we love to criticise so much. It’s on us – on our communities.
From an economic (and statistical) standpoint, many are so desperate for work that they will benefit our economies far more, long-term, than some of our own citizens who live off government handouts. Refugees can enrich our communities, schools and workplaces, but that means they are in our communities. Are you prepared to connect with them, encourage them or take them to a language class? Will you help their kids enrol at school, or find a doctor? In other words, are you prepared to help them integrate in your neighbourhood?
These are the pertinent questions and they are both political and practical. Whatever our answer to each of them may be, no one is exempt from responsibility to act.
It is one thing to publicise an opinion online for the plight of refugees, but quite another to get involved with them in your local community. ‘Human rights’ must not become some distant, trendy, fleeting ideal from which we can run when we have to get our hands dirty. If we care about the refugee crisis as much as our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram suggests, we must do something about it. The West doesn’t need any more self-righteous keyboard campaigners.