By Stephanie Asher, UNA-NCA Fellow
Though it has roots in many events prior, the current and devastating conflict in Syria is generally dated back to 2011 when the Assad regime ordered a crackdown on government protests. The complete breakdown of Syria and the devastation that has since occurred could not have been anticipated—in the past six years, 5-6 million Syrian refugees have fled abroad while over 6.5 million are internally displaced people, facing much of the same human rights and public health issues as refugees without the protections of international law.
Recently, the UNA-NCA Graduate Fellows discussed counter-terrorism strategies with Eric Rosand, the Director of the Prevention Project and a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. It is only appropriate, then, that this past week we met with Tom Bradley, member of the Board of Directors of UNA-NCA and Vice President of Development, who discussed the personal stories of Syrian refugees and why they do not pose a terrorist threat. Mr. Bradley traveled to Jordan in August 2016 as part of a George Mason University study-abroad course focused on service-learning and hearing the stories of these refugees to understand them on a personal level. Mr. Bradley showed us pictures of the young children he worked with in the day centers for women and children staffed and attended by Syrian refugees, with smiling faces painted by the master’s students. The Syrian refugee children, though they have suffered traumatic experiences, are still hopeful and eager to learn. Two of the children, on separate occasions, drew signs on Mr. Bradley in paint to express their love and gratitude for his visit. In Mr. Bradley’s words, “As you can see, these are not Skittles and they’re not terrorists. They’re people who are trying to escape war because it has either destroyed their homes or it’s come too close to home for them to remain.”
The UNA-NCA graduate fellows used this past session to discuss the challenges faced by the Syrian refugees, such as societal integration, access to resources (both materials and services), and mental health. We discussed how the protections and assistance afforded refugees, Syrians refugees in particular, has come to be a topic of massive debate in the United States and the rest of the world. Indeed, the recent Executive Order “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States” signed by President Donald J. Trump on January 27, 2017 has introduced an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees entering the United States in the name of counter-terrorism. The Executive Order also targets anyone arriving from six other majority-Muslim countries (Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen) with a 90-day visa suspension—even though citizens of these countries have not been responsible for the most recent attacks in the US. Backlash has quickly grown against President Trump’s controversial Executive Order both nationally and internationally. Americans rapidly protested the Executive Order in major cities and airports across the nation, and the Executive Order is currently being debated in court.
In early February the newly confirmed Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, joined international critics of the ban by calling for the measure suspending refugee resettlement to be lifted. During his speech, Mr. Guterres stated, “In my opinion, the US policy is not the way […] to best protect the US or any other country, in relation to the serious concerns that exist about the possibility of terrorist infiltration. I don’t think this is the effective way to do so and I think these measures should be removed sooner rather than later.”
By the end of the session, the UNA-NCA graduate fellows worked to answer questions proposed by Mr. Bradley on how to achieve peace in Syria and what advice we would give Secretary-General Guterres regarding refugees. Our group referred back to the elucidating piece by Melissa G. Dalton in chapter 10 of the Global Forecast 2017 published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies titled What Options Do We Have In Syria? as well as discussed communication and funding strategies available to address the Syrian refugee situation. Throughout our discussion, one thing was clear—there’s more work to be done.