The Syrian Refugee Crisis: Behind the Statistics

by Clare Collins

NORTHFIELD, MN—The war in Syria is in its eighth year now, and currently more than 11 million Syrian people have been displaced as a result. In December 2018, President Trump ordered a quick withdrawal of troops. The decision makes for an uncertain future, since much remains unknown about how this decision will impact the country. Currently, 70 percent of Syrians living in Syria lack access to clean water and 95 percent lack sufficient healthcare. Behind many of these statistics are powerful personal narratives about the lives of Syrians.

Throughout college, I’ve been able to hear some of these stories through a program called Paper Airplanes. Paper Airplanes was started by students at Carleton College in Minnesota to provide English language tutoring to Syrian people living across the world. The organization creates dialogue between Syrian and mostly U.S. students, and provides English language skills to Syrians looking for job and living opportunities.

A quick Google search of recent news on Syria brings up headlines like “Rockets Kill 11,” and “Can Syria Really be Reassembled?” These articles seem to focus on the conflict from afar, a narrative I often hear in different articles about Syria. While these articles are important for helping those in other parts of the world understand the conflict, they are focused on the numbers and figures of the war instead of the impact on people. Behind many of the statistics shared about the war there are families and communities and personal stories. There is also something to be said for the power of personal narratives. According to a study conducted by the Newspaper Research Journal, personal stories help engage young adults in news events, making them more interested in things happening across the world. From my experiences with my students, I realized a perspective often not publicized is the day-to-day lives of Syrians and how the war has impacted them. I wanted to write a more personal account of how the conflict and the reaction of the world to the refugee crisis has impacted them. For me, hearing these stories helped me be more engaged in understanding and discussing the conflict.

While the program also serves Syrian refugees living in Canada, Saudi Arabia, Germany, and other countries, I worked with students living in Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The students I work with are mostly financially stable and all three have attended four years of university, so their stories may be very different from the stories of others. In contrast, since the war began in 2011, 80% of the population of Syria has gone into poverty. Because two of my students were able to live in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, they were able to escape some of this devastation. While their families still living in Syria have been impacted negatively by these changes, they’ve personally had more opportunities.

An Introduction to My Students

My first student lives in Damascus, Syria. He was in his last year of undergrad and in the process of applying for asylum in Germany while I tutored him. He told me he would be drafted into the army if he didn’t receive asylum and was scared. In order to protect his identity, I will call him Omar. My second student lives in Saudi Arabia and has finished her undergraduate degree. She is interested in computer science and technology and has lived in Saudi Arabia since she was two years old, when her family moved there for better work opportunities. I will call her Fatima. My third student is named Abdulhadi and lives in Turkey with his wife and son. He works in various sectors in Turkey but helps out a lot as a translator since he speaks Turkish, Arabic, and English. He got his undergraduate degree in Syria, then lived in Saudi Arabia to escape being drafted into the war, and then moved to Turkey.

Omar spoke of his experience with how the war changed his perception of the world.

“When I grew up and the war in Syria started, I realized that the meaning of war was everything I’d thought besides one tiny missing element—safety. Despite this fact, we must continue our life without change.”

Omar explained to me that before the war in Syria, the streets were safe for him at night, and he and his friends would play soccer after dark without worry. He says things shifted after the war, and now, although he must live his life and work like normal, he lives without a sense of safety. I remember talking to Omar and hearing explosions in the background, and he would casually mention there were bombs in a nearby neighborhood.

Fatima similarly has worked through many difficulties as a Syrian student abroad. In Saudi Arabia, she won a competitive scholarship from the government providing her free university. But despite her scholarship and good grades, Fatima said it is hard to navigate the Saudi Arabian education system as a Syrian.

“No matter how good you are in school some majors are restricted. I tried to find out which majors work best for me based on this,” she said.

Fatima explained that there are some social barriers to feeling accepted in Saudi Arabia. Since she has lived there since she was two years old she hasn’t faced the same barriers as current refugees, but still says there is a definite societal divide. She told me a story of something that happened to her at school that made her realize some of the prejudices against Syrians in Saudi Arabia.

“One day at university I participated in an Olympiad for mathematics. One Saudi participant asked how I was accepted for the program and said that I shouldn’t be here because I’m not a Saudi. I was actually there because of a rare scholarship. I didn’t apply for it, they nominated me because of good grades.”

She felt defeated after this encounter, but despite the setbacks, she is grateful for the opportunities she’s received in Saudi Arabia. “I face racism here, but it exists everywhere. I try to talk with people who are kind and accept foreigners no matter where in the world I am,” Fatima said.

She also pointed out that even while Syrians are not always treated well in Saudi Arabia, other countries, like the U.S., bar them from entering entirely, so she appreciates the support her family does receive in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has been criticized for not opening its doors to Syrians as much as other countries in the region, although Saudi Arabia has denied the criticism, saying they have taken in more than 100,000 people. Because Saudi Arabia has not signed on to the U.N. convention on Refugees it is unclear exactly how many people the country has allowed in. However, estimates say there are between 100,000 and 500,000.

Abdulhadi, my third student, said graduate programs for international students are also limited, but pointed out that Saudi Arabia has more empathy for Syrians than a lot of other countries based on how many Syrians they admit. He now lives in Turkey and works in the education field, helping Syrian students living in Turkey. Abduhadi has pointed out to me many times the generosity of Turkey toward Syrians.

Abdulhadi completing an obstacle course.
Syrian People in Turkey

3.5 million displaced Syrians live in Turkey, mostly residing in cities, and their numbers are increasing by 1,000 people per day. This number is substantial, considering that the population of Syria before the war was 22 million. Local governments and municipalities have been implementing change projects to help integrate Syrian people into communities. Many have language programs, social support programs, and have even made laws more flexible in allowing Syrian people to open businesses.

A coalition of municipalities formed the Marmara Municipalities Union, which uses evidence-based policies to implement community supports for Syrian people. Abdulhadi mentioned a similar program, provided through an NGO, that he participated in and enjoyed. It brought together Ukrainian, Moldavian, Turkish and Syrian people to exchange cultures and perspectives. Abdulhadi says “it was great experience for me because it gave us as Syrians the chance to deliver our exact situation and perspective rather than what they’re showing in the media.”

In contrast to other governments, some only housing 10,000 refugees, Turkey has not regarded the refugee crisis as a political issue and therefore has not debated it domestically in Turkish politics much until recently. Internationally, however, the issue has become a source of contention. Turkey and other neighboring countries have welcomed more refugees, while the international community has largely refused to accept larger numbers of people. The Regional Refugee and Resilience plan of the EU, a plan to increase funding and support of countries housing larger numbers of refugees, assigned $890 million to Turkey. Only 37 percent of this amount has actually been received.

However, while the Turkish federal government supports many of these efforts, they have been hesitant to institute long term resettlement plans and generally see the migrants as temporary residents. Many Syrians have not been issued work permits, and therefore work informally, which can often give rise to exploitation. Abdulhadi was able to work, but many others in Turkey still struggle. Bailey Ulbright, the founder and executive director of Paper Airplanes, says that even in Turkey, residency permits are not easy to obtain, and “the numbers in neighboring host countries are far worse.” She says these conditions increase the likelihood of human trafficking.

“Legal challenges remain major barriers to work and education access. This includes visas to work or study abroad, residency permits, permits to operate new businesses or NGOs in host countries, or permits to enter local schools or universities,” Ulbright said.

How the War has Impacted the Worldview of Fatima and Omar

Aside from the impact of the logistics of visas and education access, Fatima said that the war has impacted how she sees the world.

“After the war, some countries helped Syrians and welcomed them into their country. Other countries didn’t accept us and forbid us from entering their countries. That, of course, changed my mind about the world in general and where should I go and where I can build a future for me and for my family.”

Omar voiced concerns about other countries not accepting Syrian people.

“We were born to be Syrians, we didn’t choose it. Just take a minute and think about all the immigrants that came to your country.”

After seeing the world’s reaction to the refugee crisis, Omar feels that people in other countries often don’t think about the personal impact the war has on people who flee Syria.

“Do you think Syrians are happy when they leave their lovers alone with the ghost of death in Syria? Do you think it’s easy for them to take all the risks to cross the sea and deal with a bunch of fraudster smugglers? The worst feeling I’ve ever felt was being sympathized by others when I knew in my heart that they didn’t care about me.”

Fatima says “hopefully the people (Syrians) who travelled and got the chance to build their lives can be able to feed Syria with the resources that can help to rebuild it and make it good to live in for the next generations.”

Bailey Ulbricht also said “it’s been quite incredible to witness the resilience” of many of the students who have worked through Paper Airplanes, “despite any psychological damage or legal issues they are dealing with.”

“Technology has opened up an entirely new ‘gig’ economy that supports part-time work regardless of where you are located, as long as you can speak English and have technological literacy,” Ulbricht said.

Psychological Toll of the Family Separation and War

Abdulhadi spoke of some of the psychological difficulties of the war.

“I suffer my own costs as a foreigner in Turkey even though I’m better off than my family members. Everyone is suffering with the war, and I feel I can’t help all of them because there are so many. I feel responsible and guilty. I also can’t connect with my family often because they only have electricity 2 to 3 hours a day in Syria.”

Omar also spoke of this impact in his life.

“I think this civil war has changed a lot of things in us. It’s exposed the little evil inside of all of us, because all the blood of martyrs got struck on our shoulders. We are all guilty savages and criminals in the eyes of innocent victims, and they won’t forgive us until the war is over.”

Bailey Ulbright says she has noticed “psychological trauma and high levels of depression” in many Syrian people she’s worked with. She says the combination of a “loss of home, loss of family members and friends, and loss of a sense of purpose and normalcy” as well as “joblessness and lack of opportunity” have made an impact on the mental health of many individuals.

And yet, she says, “it’s been quite incredible to witness the resilience of many of these individuals, despite any psychological damage or legal issues they are dealing with.”

A Discourse Toward International Understanding

Omar and Abdulhadi both had messages for people from Western countries about how they can broaden their understanding of the conflict.

Abdulhadi told me it frustrates him the way some of the media portrays Muslims and Syrians in the news.

“When westerners talk to Syrians they change their minds about us. Media shows ISIS, which is not Islam at all.” Abdulhadi says Syrians are often portrayed as uneducated, but that it can be more useful to talk to people and learn from them.

“Islam invites people to love each other. I want to invite Americans to meet Syrian people and to hear their opinions instead of relying on the media.”

Omar says that he was frustrated by the world turning a blind eye to issues in Syria. He says as a boy he used to watch the news with his grandfather.

“We were impressed by the rights of humans in European countries, and even the rights of animals. My grandfather kept saying, ‘these people really reach a high level of humanity.’ Therefore, please host us in your countries until the war is over (or at least be rational and stop encouraging and supplying the parties in Syria with weapons).”

Omar says that with the Syrian conflict and the reactions of countries, he seeks religious tolerance and common humanity, and hopes others do as well.

“From my perspective religions do not require prejudice and hate because all religions drive through the same tunnel of organizing. What I really believe is that we all worship the same god, and I think our god is more important to think about than some actions that have divided us.”

Clare Collins is a senior at St. Olaf College, where she studies social work and political science.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

The cover photo is from the website of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

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