Seven years of tragedy: the forgotten Syrian people and the stigmatization of refugees in the US

From Aleppo to Eastern Ghouta, news and public attention comes and goes, but the death toll continues to rise as the world bears witness to the horrors in Syria.

“It’s not a top news story. That’s usually how it goes,” says Amal Rass, midwestern regional coordinator of Students Organize for Syria (SOS). “When it’s not the first thing they see when they [go on] Facebook, they won’t know about it.”

“People only tend to speak out when something big happens– like Aleppo or Ghouta. Then that went away and they’re surprised that it’s happening again. It’s all talk and no action,” says Amal, a Syrian-American student who volunteered in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan this past summer.

 “[The attention] died out a long time ago. There’s a massacre happening in Ghouta right now that has been happening since the beginning of February and it’s just now reaching the media, and very minimally,” says Amal, who is also the president of the SOS chapter at Wayne State.

After the four-day long bombardment by Syrian government forces and over 300 civilians killed, the United Nations responded to Ghouta’s dire crisis with a blank issued statement, explaining that there were no words left to describe the horrors in Syria, according to The New York Times.

“People are willing to listen, and that comes from a place of empathy. They feel bad for these people in these situations,” Amal explains.

“As for as help– If people wanted to help, genuinely, they would be calling the Russian embassies right now and asking them to stop destroying and annihilating people in Ghouta,” Amal says. “And that’s just the reality, if they don’t have an emotional attachment to something, it’s a lot harder to get people to be motivated, to actually take part and stop what’s going on.”

Amal says the political climate, the refugee ban and the media’s portrayal of Syrians all play a role in the stigma attached to Syrians and Syrian refugees.

 “There are people I talk to who are still surprised there’s a refugee crisis, because they thought that it had just went away, but it hasn’t, it’s just not in the media anymore,” says Amal.

Often times when the topic of refugees are in the news or discussed by politicians, they are villainized, labeled as illegal immigrants and are assumed to be associated with crime.

 Zienab Fahs, development director of the Syrian American Rescue Network (SARN) explains this misrepresentation could not be further from the truth.

 “These people are seeking refuge, they’re seeking a home, they need a place to stay and in comparison to other countries, we have not done what we can be doing and there’s so much to be [done],” she says.

America, in comparison to other countries, has taken in a miniscule fraction of the Syrian refugee population, many of whom are children. Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq account for 41% of displaced Syrians, while less than 1% live in North America– 52,000 refugees in Canada and 21,000 in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center.

Although the U.S. grants refugee status to a sliver of the Syrian refugee population, Americans often believe that there are more refugees settled in the U.S. than there truly are. Amal says this is because many Americans are ignorant to the overly selective and extensive vetting process, which can take up to two years before someone is accepted refugee status.

Zienab explains that although the worldwide refugee population had doubled within the past five years, the U.S. has closed its doors to those fleeing their war torn homes. Rather than helping refugees as a “moral obligation”, she says refugees are feared because people are “bothered by what they don’t know.”

 “They’re stripped from their homes and they’ve just gone through the most traumatic [experiences] in their lives and now they have to come to a country and face the stress of finding a new job and a place to live, where to buy groceries, getting a car, a drivers license,” she says.

 Zienab says despite this fear, Americans and the U.S. economy could stand to benefit from immigrants and refugees, because immigrants often start new businesses.

With the initial assistance and guidance from resettlement organizations such as SARN, refugee families are quickly becoming independent and successful in the U.S. by finding jobs, attaining degrees and adapting to American culture.

 “It’s not a free handout by any means, but in a way we can direct them towards the right resources,” says Zienab, who oversees the development of programs to assist refugees settling in the U.S.

 Amal says that the U.S. needs to go further than take in a small percentage of refugees, but to also eliminate the source thats forcing them to flee their homes, lives and loved ones.

 “If they’re able to put pressure on the Assad regime, Russia and Iran, a no-fly zone or putting pressure on them because of their clear violations of international law.


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