17 October 2016

Misinformation about the Syrian crisis permeates news feeds, radio waves, and political speeches. The origin of the Syrian conflict and the process of coming to America as a refugee have been glossed over in this election season, but this post will explore those issues and misinformation circulating about the individuals coming from Syria.

Syria is a small country in the neighborhood of Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq. Until recently, it was ruled by the Assad family, but tensions between the Assad regime and Syrian citizens escalated to the breaking point in 2011.

Image credit: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-14703856

The problems began in 2011. In March of that year, several teenagers didn’t come home from school one evening. They had been arrested by the government for graffiti that incited revolution. Citizens organized protests, demanding that the teens be released. There were rumors that these children were being tortured by officials. After several days of protests, government soldiers shot at those gathered in the city of Deraa in Southern Syria. Several protesters were killed. This event incited protesters all over the country to protest the Assad regime.

So it began. There were more shootings. Rebel groups organized in protest of the Assad regime. Russia began to fund Assad’s army, and the US supported the pro-democracy rebel groups. Soon the situation in Syria was being called a civil war.

The fighting has been especially heinous because war crimes have been committed by both the rebel groups and the Assad regime. The war is partly against citizens— a strategy the Asad regime has used which includes cutting off access to food, water, and medical supplies to civilian areas. Bombings occur routinely in populated areas.

In the Syrian suburbs of Damascus in August 2013, rockets packed with the chemical sarin, a nerve agent, were released into the streets. Hundreds of people were killed. Facing US military intervention, Assad was forced to destroy the rest of Syria’s chemical weapons store. However, documented incidents of chlorine gas used in warfare continue throughout 2014. The use of chemical weapons is a serious war crime.

With the government unhinged and battling for control and confused citizens attempting to organize rebel groups, a power vacuum formed. ISIS and other terrorist groups moved in, compounding the chaos. Rebel groups were threatening, the government was threatening, and terror groups threatened on all sides as well.

A woman and her her child walk through the ruined border town of Kobane. Image credit: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/syria-conflict-2015-another-bloody-year-war-torn-country-graphic-images-1534832

Many of us have seen the footage of the bombed buildings, the doctors operating in rooms stained with blood, the little boy, Omran, in the ambulance.

These images on our computer screens are the reality for the people in Syria. Syrian refugees are so desperate to get away from the conflict that we’ve seen them pack into boats and set sail themselves across the Mediterranean. An estimated 2,500 Syrians have drowned on the journey.

The political controversy surrounding Syrian refugees boils down to the security risk of allowing citizens of a country at war with ISIS through our borders… but the misinformation about how refugees arrive here is rampant. Refugees do not just waltz through our borders. This is especially true of Syrian refugees, who face the strictest vetting process of all nations.

First, the refugees arrive in a refugee camp. From there, aid workers make referrals to countries about specific refugees. Syrian refugees referred to the US go through a lengthy interview process with professionals at the Department of Homeland Security who are specifically trained to assess risk. They also participate in mental health screenings, physical health assessments, and more.

To illustrate how tough the vetting process is, here are some statistics. At one point, there were 23,092 Syrian refugees referred to the US relocation program. Just 7,014 of them passed initial screening to start the interviewing process. After the interviews and further screening, only 2,034 actually arrived here and been resettled.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Syrian vetting process takes an average of 18-24 months.

Once they arrive, however, they work closely with non-profit groups like Bethany or Samaritas Ministries. They are not just set loose: these groups help them put down roots in a place and begin a new life here. Those who were doctors before might have to work factory jobs. The lawyers and professionals might find themselves in slaughterhouses, packing meat to pay rent. It is not an easy process to resettle, learn a foreign language, and have to go back to school to get US credentials to be employed in skilled work.

This process is a well-documented procedure. However, in this crazy election season, there has been an explosion of misunderstandings about how the refugee system works.

We want to clarify the following points:

Contrary to what we’ve heard in the Presidential campaign, most Syrian refugees are not men. Women and children younger than 14 make up 70 percent of Syrian refugees.

The screening process for refugees is effective and successful. The Syrian man who participated in the Paris attacks went through a very different screening process to get through the French border, and he may have pretended to be a refugee. US vetting is much tougher, and neither political candidate is advocating for less vetting. Both candidates argue that careful interviewing, risk assessment, and screenings are vital parts of the Syrian refugee program in the US.

This is a humanitarian crisis. There are lives at stake if the US does not step up to do its part in resettling these refugees.

On Nov. 14, 2015, Donald Trump claimed that Barack Obama was accepting 250,000 Syrian refugees into the US. Ben Carson claimed the number was 100,000, and Carly Fiorina said it was 100,000. Those numbers are wrong: in recent years the US resettled 70,000 refugees from all countries, not just Syria. Syrian refugees made up just 10,000 of these last year. In addition, the President does not have the final say in the number of allowed refugees: he or she must collaborate that number with Congress.

As this article points out, refugees are the victims, not the perpetrators, of persecution and terror.

Not a single American has been killed in an attack by a refugee. The Boston bombers were not refugees. The San Bernadino shooters were not refugees. The vetting process that refugees go through makes them one of the safest segments of our population. After all, US-born citizens don’t go through vetting to ensure that they are mentally healthy, will contribute to society, and don’t have a record of questionable behavior.

In this season of misinformation and fear, let us work to correct the misunderstandings of our culture and our world. Syrian refugees have had their homes and livelihoods destroyed by war. We have a duty to welcome them with respect and compassion.


By Patricia Schlutt

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