The Kenyon Lens: The Syrian Refugee Crisis
A new feature on The Thrill, “The Kenyon Lens” seeks to locate student voices on issues and events occurring in the United States and in the world. Our goal is to open conversations about national and world news and to raise awareness and knowledge about these issues. If you have a topic you want us to cover, email us your idea at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Syrian Refugee Crisis has recently become more a topic of discussion at Kenyon, despite the fact that this crisis has been going on for four years. In August and September this year, images of a dead boy on the beach and the truck that contained 71 dead refugees in Austria appeared in the news, and many could argue that this issue came to more international attention recently because it started affecting the Western world. For some Kenyon students in particular, Sewar Quran ’17, from Jordan, and Ghada Bakbouk ‘19, from Syria, this issue is something that has especially impacted their lives. In our first edition of The Kenyon Lens, we seek to gather their perspective and insight on this issue.
I am from Jordan, and we are borders with Syria. I remember when I was in high school and I went to a boarding high school in Jordan, so when the Arab Spring broke out in 2011 it was very big and we didn’t know what was happening. With Syria I think at first it escalated very quickly and started with people protesting the government to overthrow it. Then it escalated to shooting the protesters and there were fighter jets and they were bombing people and it was no longer safe. I went through the escalation because I was in Jordan, and people thought it would be 6 months until it died down and people would overthrow the government. Syria was sort of the shock; the government, the rebels, everyone that got involved, and people were dying and it was a place people couldn’t live. My grandmother is half Syrian, so I grew up with a sense of Syrian heritage. My grandmother would always say ‘I love Jordan but Syria, it’s special,’ so it was definitely a part of my family. Then the refugee crisis started happening, and Jordan now hosts 1.4 million Syrians, so my school got involved with the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, and I was part of fundraising and working with people, hosting refugees at the school, and getting clothes and blankets. The situation is so heartbreaking: they don’t have food, they don’t have blankets, they don’t have clothes. These people are crossing into Jordan with the things they have on their backs trying to save their family. Then they struggle with building a new life in new countries with insane obstacles such as getting access to education, food, the right to work etc. One of my sister’s friend’s father and brother were shot the same day. They don’t know who shot them or whether it was the government or the rebels, but they died. My dad’s friend lost his three daughters. These people had a good life, lived in their country, and they had healthcare and beautiful homes, and then overnight their house is gone and they lost half their family, their children don’t have access to schools, and they live in unbearable conditions. They didn’t choose this. They had no say in it and then they get blamed for it.
On her experience in Syria, Ghada says,
You can’t find any Syrian individual or family that hasn’t been affected. I would consider myself one of the people who were least affected, so maybe what I’ll say now seems like a lot, but there are people who have been through much more. First we had to leave our house three years ago. Now my family lives in a rented house because we lived in the suburbs but had to move downtown because it wasn’t safe anymore. I had to switch three schools for high school because of moving, and there were some days we couldn’t go to school. More than once a building close to our school was targeted with shells and bombs, so it was very dangerous. Once we were going back home when our home was still in the suburbs. We were stuck on two sides between the Free Army and the Syrian army, and they were both shooting at us because each one thought we were from the other side, but we were a school bus. I had a very brave teacher who came out of the window and started shouting that we were a school bus; we were children and teachers. It was the most horrifying thing I’ve been through. Of course these things are personal, but there are other things all Syrians have to deal with. There are extended hours of water and electricity outages every day and week. There are checkpoints all over Syria; the best scenario is you can wait an hour at a check point, but the worst scenario is that people are arrested and killed. It’s not one side doing this; it’s all sides who are fighting inside Syria making crimes against humanity.
Sewar makes another point about the future of the refugees:
What it comes down to it, it is either we save them or they die. It is important to also be aware that we are not doing anyone any favors; it is our responsibility, simple as that. It is so easy (a human tendency of ours) to tap ourselves on the back for doing something very simple (something we have to be doing). This leads us to a state of inaction. Being home this summer was insane. It was unbearable because the international community has been silent about this issue. I don’t see how these children are going to recover from this. Growing up in a refugee camp and witnessing death and destruction at such a young age is heartbreaking. How are these people going to recover when they see the international community not doing anything and that people don’t care? Her Majesty Queen Rania of Jordan just did an interview and she brought up the point on how this new generation has seen so much destruction and death at a young age and have seen people not reach out a hand to help. These people have lost so much and have nothing left to lose, and I think that makes them a target for extremist ideas and this is something that is very concerning. Then of course we blame them. It’s not their fault because they got sucked into this vacuum of death and destruction and war and they are blamed for it. That’s what worries me. It’s interesting because I go home every summer, and going home and coming back is so weird because at home you see it and live with refugees and then you come here and immediately you are isolated in the Kenyon bubble. It feels very far and distant. I think people here know that there are refugees and that it is serious, but I think they don’t know the extent. It makes sense because it’s not something you can individually blame your people for because it’s far away, but I think students here don’t know enough. Not that they lack knowledge or intelligence to do so, but I think it comes from a larger tendency to cool down what happens in the Middle East or make it just the “news.”
I want to comment on the bubble. With all due respect to Western culture I think that a lot of people in the USA and Europe are living in this bubble; it’s not only a Kenyon thing. If the problem is not affecting people directly, it’s kind of normal that they don’t think about it that much; but a problem like the Syrian Crisis is much more than a regional problem; it’s a human problem. At Kenyon I would say I had a lot of support and people would ask questions to understand. I was a little bit surprised there were people that had no idea what was going on, like even the very basics they may know there is a civil war, but they have no idea what’s really going on. I noticed most people are willing to help, for example we had a fundraiser during Eid dinner and we had help from a lot of students and faculty. I was happy to know people are willing to understand and I don’t feel bad when people ask me questions, though it’s hard for me to repeat these hard times. Each time I talk about it there are a lot of bad memories, but I try to talk to people a lot about this because it’s very important to raise awareness about this topic right now.
When asked about the misconception people at Kenyon have of the crisis, Sewar commented,
I’ve heard people say we can’t have too many immigrants, which is wrong firstly because these people aren’t immigrants. I take a serious problem with people who say immigrants. It truly upsets me because immigrants are people who leave their country to get a job or education or better life; it’s something within their control. These people are refugees, they don’t want to leave their country. They were forced out and if they stayed they would die. These people have lost everything; this is not within their will. Why else would you put your child on a boat and not know if they were going to make it or not?
Ghada also comments on the difference between immigrants and refugees,
There were a lot of people who were displaced in Syria but did not leave, either because they couldn’t or they didn’t want to. I mean it’s home and no one wants to leave home; it’s just how it is. Also, the difference between immigrants and refugees is important in legal terms. As refugees people will have more rights in the country they arrive to, but as immigrants they have much less rights than refugees.
On the issue of what Kenyon knows of the issue, Sewar comments,
I think people should know this crisis has received nowhere near the amount of international awareness it should. It only started gaining attention when it started influencing Europe. When we compare the impact on Europe with the impacts felt by Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan we realize how much smaller it is. Again, this is part of a larger pattern of the world’s tendency towards western hegemony. The conversation so ironically shifted from focusing on the refugee crisis and what we can do to help to how the refugee crisis is affecting Europe. I mean it’s absolutely insane. People here just know about refugees in the very simple sense of the word, but they don’t know that people are being killed in Syria by both the rebels and the government. They are stuck. Also people try to make it political. We need to stop talking about the politics of the issue and focus on the humanity of the issue. Many of these people couldn’t care less about the politics at the moment; they just want to be safe. Syria is beautiful, and I think it’s harder for me and I can’t imagine what it’s like for Ghada and people from Syria because it was this beautiful country with a beautiful and rich history. I mean when I think of literature and poetry and ancient arab history I think of Syria and to see that being demolished over a political conflict is heartbreaking. We’ve stopped talking about these civilians who are most impacted by the conflict and crisis and focus on US versus Russia, or Russia versus China, and then there are the rebels who are fighting the government and killing the civilians, and now ISIS is in parts of Syria. The media loves to talk about ISIS. But no one mentions that the escalation of the situation is what made it easier for ISIS to come into the picture. The US did lead a coalition against ISIS with Jordan and various Arab country, and they are essentially bombing different parts of Syria. Yes the goal of the coalition is to fight ISIS, but it is killing civilians.
Ghada also agreed about this misconception about the issue,
One of the problems is that most people see it as ISIS. I’m not saying that ISIS is not there, but what’s happening there is that the chaos started and then ISIS came; they took advantage of the chaos, but they were not the first to pull the trigger. People also think that we are blocked from the whole world, which is not true. It is hard to find electricity and Internet, but we still manage. We know what’s going on.
As for conversations at Kenyon, Sewar mentioned that these conversations…
…don’t go into depth about why this is happening and what parts are opposing each other and who is fighting. There hasn’t been talk about the actual conflict and about what is causing this death and how the US and Middle Eastern countries are involved. I am president of MESA this year and we are doing panels for people to talk about it so hopefully that will get the conversation going. We want students to know more, especially with the escalation that’s now happening. In terms of Kenyon students, sometimes the little things help. Fifty or seventy five cents can get a person a meal in Jordan. Also students should talk about the role of the US and what it is doing to help. We need to get this conversation to be one of the big topics we talk about at Kenyon. This is an issue that is very big, but up until now no one has brought it up in a serious matter. Also another way for students to help is to get involved in various organizations that are working with this, so if an organization is hosting a panel then go to that panel and see what Syrian students on campus are saying and to get other student organizations involved. It’s scary thinking of how I am at Kenyon now where I have a perfect schedule and at the end of the day I know what is going to happen while a month ago I was at the camps with these children and families that were living in tents with minimum to no legal access to basic human rights and needs. It’s scary to see that contrast. From my perspective no one has done enough because we get distracted by politics. We love to talk but we need to start taking action.
Students can donate for refugees. Infrastructure is affected and agriculture is also, but they have no value if they are compared to one human soul. Also it is important to try to understand what’s really going on. When someone knows and that someone tells another person and the word is spread, this helps and it means a lot for people in Syria and refugees to know people are supporting them from miles away. I think the best idea is to read and watch news not in a political way. Try to understand the human issue over the political issue. I’m not saying politics aren’t important or shouldn’t be considered, but at this point humans are more important and should be the priority. For example when the Syrian child washed ashore, for an emotional reason people acknowledged it and what is the refugee crisis. This is why it’s important to hear individual stories. A large number is easily forgotten to be people.