We are failing Syrian refugee crisis

This is an edited version of a column that won an “honorable mention” award in this year’s Scholastic Arts and Writing Awards. 

The Syrian refugee crisis is a test of what our country stands for. It is a test of our morals.  It is a test of our character.  And as James Denselow, a writer on Middle East politics and security issues, stated in a column for Al Jazeera, “it is one that we are failing” (“Syria: Do People Really Care?” Oct. 6, 2016).

Syria is in the midst of a brutal civil war, and civilians are seeking refuge in neighboring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq.  These countries do not have the financial backing to support the extraordinarily large numbers of refugees, but America has the capability to help.

In times of crisis, the United States of America has always been known as a nation that will step up and take a stand against injustice. During foreign conflicts, our country has been long regarded as a beacon of hope, guiding the world to universal freedom and peace. The time has come for the United States to renew its status as a haven for those lost; the country needs to take action to end the Syrian refugee crisis.

Bahzat Aziz and his wife, Atie Ali, are two Syrian refugees who are trying to make the United States their home. The pair made their journey from Syria to Rochester, New York in July of 2015, according to an article published in 2016 in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. (Justin Murphy, “Syrian Refugee Family Faces Difficulties Here.” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Aug. 20, 2016. ) Living in the midst of a civil war, no day was ordinary; they lived their lives in constant fear of death.  Aziz said that in Syria, “there was no safety – it was all danger.”

Thousands more like Bahzat and Atie are fleeing Syria every day, but due to the current condition of their country, they have few other options; since 2011, the ongoing warfare in Syria has killed over 400,000 individuals and displaced another 11 million, according to Jie Zong, in an article last year that was published in the Migration Policy Institute.  (“Syrian Refugees In The United States,” Jan. 12, 2017). Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have come to America since the crisis began, though the vetting process that ensures the safety of all Americans can take up to 24 months, according to Zong’s research.

Bahzat Aziz told a reporter in the Democrat and Chronicle article referred to above that he wants American citizens opposing the relocation of himself and other refugees to recognize that “we are also victims of terrorism… we didn’t come here for tourism and relaxation.” It is in situations like his that America has the opportunity to recapture its spirit of compassion, the spirit for which we as citizens have been justifiably proud of for most of our nation’s history.

Citizens and authority figures of the United States are reluctant to allow Syrian refugees within our borders due to fear of accidentally welcoming terrorism into the country. Contrary to popular belief, however, this is not a problem with Syrian refugees. Since 2001, over 800,000 refugees have been resettled in the United States, and none have been convicted of an act of domestic terrorism, according to Scott Arbeiter in an op-ed piece written for The New York Times.  (“America’s Duty To Take In Refugees,” Sept. 23, 2016.) 

Refugees are intensely vetted for security threats before being resettled in the United States, and this has proven to be an impenetrable force field for keeping out dangerous individuals. This disproves naysayers who oppose offering solace to refugees due to a fear of increased terrorist attacks. It also proves that it is possible to protect both American citizens and Syrian refugees.  Arbeiter, president of World Relief nonprofit organization, made the point that “compassion and security can coexist.”

While saving thousands of displaced refugees may seem like a daunting task to the average “Good Samaritan,” there are steps that can easily be taken by any United States citizen to help Syrian refugees trying to enter the country. The most important of these is for people to place political pressure on their representatives to push Syria up on the political agenda. People need these representatives to advertise what they are doing to help bring an end to the suffering of Syrian civilians. Citizens need to encourage representatives to do more where it is needed.

The Mercy Corps and other humanitarian organizations are struggling to keep up with the needs that are growing exponentially. United Nations appeals have been significantly underfunded every year since the start of the crisis. The United States government needs to pull its weight more so than it currently is; more refugees should be allowed into the United States and given the opportunity to live free and secure lives.

The process of vetting Syrians before allowing them into the country should be expanded and better funded, thus increasing our ability to save innocent lives. There is much that is yet to be done to aid the millions of displaced Syrians, and the only way to help is to show the initiative.

James Denselow, referred to above, argued that we should not let apathy take over, when it comes to Syria. He noted that Edmund Burke once said, and it proves true now as much as ever, that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” If we step aside and let the Syrian government continue to kill innocent civilians, then we are letting evil win. The Syrian refugee crisis will not end without the interference of a world superpower such as the United States of America.

Our country has been largely regarded as a place of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Almost 150 years ago, when the Statue of Liberty was constructed, the sonnet penned by Emma Lazarus and inscribed on a plaque near the statue offered to  “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Now is the time for us to make good on that promise, and save the hundreds of thousands of refugees who thirst for a taste of American freedom.