The Sad Fading Away of the Refugee Crisis Story
What new horror must we see — after the trauma and destruction so well documented over the past four years — to capture the world’s attention and finally end this war in Syria?
Last month, 44 children died at sea trying to cross to safety from the Middle East to Europe. None of them made world headlines. The world has moved on since the body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach, briefly focusing the globe’s attention on the crisis. According to Google Trends, searches for the word “refugee” have already declined by more than half.
Every single one of these stories throws me back to a dark time in my own life, a time of helplessness and fear.
I was never a refugee, but I could have been. For the first 12 years of my life, I lived in a no-man’s land in Beirut, on the front lines of a war that ravaged my country. I was born two years into the 15-year conflict, and bombs and shelters seemed normal to me while growing up, just part of everyday life, like having breakfast and going to school. We had no power or running water for days on end; stray bullets periodically were fired into our apartment. Men with guns camped out on the ground floor of our building for years.
I often get asked why my family never left — or more pointedly, why my parents kept us there, dodging sniper fire on the way to school and back. The answer is this: We stayed because leaving is hard. Becoming refugees meant leaving our lives, our identity, and our dignity behind.
No one’s first instinct is to leave. Their first choice is usually to hold on to the comforting familiarity of home; when that becomes impossible, you leave for another safer area within the country. Then you leave for a neighboring country, so you can return as soon as possible or even keep an eye on your property while you’re away. Only when the walls are closing in and the horizon is total darkness do you give up and leave everything you have ever known behind, lock the door to your home, and walk away.
This is the choice Syrians are making today. In a country of 23 million people, more than 4 million are now refugees, 7.5 million are internally displaced, and 12 million are in need of assistance. The crisis has reached a point where, unless we end the war, the country will slowly empty itself — a hemorrhaging of its brightest and best, its young and old, escaping unspeakable horrors in the largest refugee migration since World War II, until all that will be left are the fighters.
My family stayed in Lebanon through 15 years of war because we kept thinking it couldn’t get worse, because we weren’t sure where else to go, and because we got used to danger. There was always somewhere we could run in order to briefly escape a bout of aggressive shelling, and there were also periods of quiet, when we thought peace had broken out. The walls of our bombed-out apartment were rebuilt and replastered, windowpanes replaced. We would go for Sunday lunches, or spend the weekend at the beach, before the fragile peace ended once more.
So why are Syrians leaving after only four years? The reaction of many in the West is one of bewilderment: The refugees look well fed and well dressed, they have mobile phones, so why don’t they stay in their country? People wouldn’t ask these questions if they understood what it really means to live in a war zone.
The conflict in Syria is more brutal than even what I witnessed in Lebanon. We had no air bombardments, except on a few occasions; we had no beheadings and no chemical weapons.
Syria is a war with no law. The violence isn’t just meted out by fighters against their opponents — civilians have been systematically targeted over the last four years, mostly by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Barrel bombs have been raining on neighborhoods, whole towns are cut off from food and supplies, villages have emptied, and schools have closed. More than 100,000 people are thought to have disappeared in Assad’s prisons.
Yet when it comes to the plight of refugees, the West continues to focus on the symptoms rather than on the source of the problem.
First, it’s important to understand that this is a crisis for Syria, not Europe. Even as some Europeans worry about the influx of refugees, the numbers are clear: Europe, a continent of 500 million people, has so far received 850,000 refugees since 2012. That’s not even a 0.2 percent increase in the population. But Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon have welcomed 4 million refugees since the war started, with minimal help from the outside world. Lebanon, a country of 4 million people, is hosting 1.2 million refugees — equivalent to roughly 90 million immigrants showing up on America’s doorstep.
This is not a “refugee crisis,” but a Syrian war crisis — the result of four years of a descent into hell and a conflict that U.S. President Barack Obama dismissed as “someone else’s civil war.” He was convinced that the war could be contained within Syria, but he was wrong. And that’s why this also is, and remains, a global leadership crisis.
This is a direct result of the world’s failure to do anything substantial to bring the Syrian crisis to an end. For two years, the United States and Europe mostly ignored the mounting refugee crisis, despite repeated warnings by powerful voices about the coming influx and calls to address the conflict, including by setting up a no-fly zone. The European Union’s first reaction to the refugee crisis this summer was to send the military to hunt down the smugglers.
Scarred by past military interventions and the difficult choices that the conflict in Syria presents, the West has understandably been reluctant to consider any military options. Obama has dismissed various options as “mumbo jumbo.” But even serious diplomacy was abandoned. Until Russia’s military intervention focused everyone’s mind on Syria again, there had been no serious international efforts to end the conflict since the international conference on Syria in Montreux, Switzerland, in January 2014, leaving regional players to shape the conflict.
By reducing the discussion on Syria to the battle against the so-called Islamic State, the West distorts the narrative of the conflict. When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the group is “obviously the most significant player in the massive migrant crisis that’s sweeping through Europe,” he overlooked that the bulk of the refugees are leaving rebel-held areas being bombed daily by Assad’s forces or are leaving government-controlled areas to escape forced conscription.
We’re also in the midst of a crisis in basic humanity. This crisis produces headlines decrying the “disgusting” refugees, who are supposedly spoiling British tourists’ holidays on Greek islands. Despite repeated appeals and cries for help, the United Nations has received only 43 percent of the funds necessary to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Syria. The World Food Programme has been forced to cut food rations for refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. Given these failures, it’s no surprise then that Syrians are also leaving their temporary refuge and hoping for a better, more permanent life in Europe.
For several weeks this summer, I lived the nightmare of that dangerous journey to Europe by proxy. A Syrian who has been living in Lebanon for a few years, whom I shall call Hani, is very close to my family. His older brother, still in their government-held village near the city of Homs, decided this summer that it was time to risk it all and leave for Europe.
The brother crossed into Lebanon by bus and flew to Turkey, where Syrians don’t need a visa to enter. From there, he made the crossing to Greece by boat. We waited anxiously for news, through days of silence as he walked to Macedonia. With no roaming service on his phone, he was dependent on finding wireless networks to connect to messaging services on his phone and send news. There was more silence as he made his way to Hungary, walking 40 hours straight, hitching taxi rides, and squeezing into a train.
Even I wasn’t sure why he had left — there was no shelling in their village, and Hani had a well-paying job in Lebanon, so he could send money home. But Hani told me the village had emptied of everyone — there were no jobs there, no future for the children. The village is under government control, but Assad’s forces are under pressure and Islamist rebel groups could soon launch an offensive that would threaten the area. The brother decided to leave before it was too late. He chose to make the journey alone first, leaving his wife and two young children behind. He has now reached Sweden, where an aunt in the family lives, and he is working on a family reunification process that will bring his wife and children to live with him.
It has gotten to the point where Syria’s best and brightest — even those formerly most committed to healing their country — have given up. In August 2014, while buying a sandwich on a Beirut street corner, I thought I saw a ghost: Haggard and unkempt, Anwar al-Bunni, a renowned Syrian human rights lawyer, was having coffee with his wife. I had seen pictures of him but had never met him in person, because he was in prison during the years I covered Syria. During one of my trips to Syria for a BBC report on dissidents in the country, I had accompanied his wife to the notorious Sednaya prison, where he was held, and waited for her outside to record her reaction as she came out.
Bunni, a Christian from Hama, had spent most of his life defending dissidents, often pro bono. His family had long played a key role in opposition to Assad rule, and they paid for it dearly: The four Bunni brothers, one sister, and two of their spouses spent a combined 70 years in jail as political prisoners.
But even when the civil uprising turned violent in Syria, Bunni persisted in defending activists who were being rounded up. He kept going to court, filing cases, and risking his own life doing so. When I saw him in Beirut, he told me he had felt he was still able to make a difference, to get a few people released here and there. But over the spring and summer of 2014, the mood had become uncompromising: Assad’s government started clamping down even harder than before, more people were being rounded up, no one was being released. There was no point to any of his work anymore, and no one would be able to get him out of jail if he were picked up. So he finally gave up.
Bunni begged me not to tell anyone I had seen him. He had been smuggled out of Syria and into Lebanon, but he knew that the long arm of Syria’s intelligence services could still reach him in Beirut. He was working to get asylum in Germany with the help of diplomat friends who knew him through his relentless work in Syria. He is now safely in Berlin but still working on raising awareness about the thousands of Syrians who disappeared in Assad’s dungeons.
This is how devoted Syrians were to their civil uprising. These are the brave middle-class Syrians now escaping in droves: the lawyers, engineers, and university professors. None of them wanted to be refugees.
This is isn’t happening to people you have nothing in common with. Syria may feel far away and foreign, but my family faced a similar decision about whether to leave Lebanon; we chose to stay, almost by default. If one of us had died or been injured, we would never have forgiven ourselves.
But we were lucky. When people meet me today — say, an English-speaking Arab woman at ease in both Washington and Beirut — they find it hard to reconcile that with the image of a child of war. I don’t often speak about life in war-torn Beirut because I don’t want it to define me, but whenever I do, people’s jaws drop.
On the worst nights of shelling during the Lebanese war, we would either run down to the underground garage that often served as a shelter or drag our mattresses to the inner hallway in our third-floor apartment. In the morning, if the bombardments had subsided, my father would drive us to school.
At one point, going to school became an even more perilous journey. My father had to drop off my sisters and me at a checkpoint marking the separation line between East and West Beirut. We would walk a few miles on a wide road along the Beirut hippodrome until we reached the school bus that awaited us on the other side to take us to class. In the afternoon, my dad would return to pick us up from the same check point.
One morning, fighting broke out as my two sisters walked to the bus — shelling, or perhaps sniper fire. Parked on the side on the road was a Lebanese armored personnel carrier (APC). The soldiers, stunned by the sight of two teenage girls, told them to return whence they came. My dad was long gone, so the soldiers took my sisters on the APC to take them home. But when they reached the wide four-lane intersection leading to our neighborhood, they told my sisters it was too dangerous for them to drive on. So the two girls with backpacks walked across the front line and made their way home.
None of us can remember whether I was there too. Trauma does strange things to your memory — it can obliterate whole periods of your life, too painful to remember, too hard to process. Although I am many years younger than my sisters, I have many more memories than they do of the war.
Despite all the commemorations of World War II and the Holocaust, all the promises of “never again,” it seems like Europe has forgotten what it is truly like to have your life ravaged by war. There have been formidable individual expressions of generosity, but no Western politician in office today has personal memories of World War II and few Europeans or Americans seem to be able to relate to suffering on that scale.
There is nothing more difficult than explaining the reality of war to those who have never lived it. It is unfathomable for most people. But we must try, because it is key to understanding why Syrians are leaving their country in such numbers and, even more importantly, to recognizing the suffering that continues for those left behind. We must not give up on them.
Growing up in the war in Lebanon is why I decided, at the age of 13, to become a journalist. But the war in Syria has shaken my conviction about what I contribute. I never expected that one compelling story could alter the thinking of world leaders. But I also never expected that the outstanding work of dozens, if not hundreds, of journalists, who have paid with their lives and their health while reporting tirelessly on the death of a great nation, would neither move the needle of geopolitics nor awaken our collective humanity.
Obama said, “This is not some superpower chessboard contest.” But that’s how it feels for those on the receiving end of the violence, with a traffic jam of fighter jets of all stripes in the skies over Syria. That’s how it felt to me as a child in Beirut.
And when a U.S. official reacts to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s involvement in Syria with apparent glee at the quagmire awaiting the Russians, saying, “Knock yourselves out,” it’s clear that closing the empathy gap between the West and the rest remains an elusive task.
There is no undoing what the war has now done to Syria. War, I have come to learn, never leaves you. It lies dormant within you all your life, but you can overcome it and thrive once the guns fall silent.
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