Western countries and the Middle East are (finally) engaged in serious negotiations around resettling many more of the refugees from Syria – the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II.
While arguments around global complicity and moral obligation in the Middle East should and do inspire aid to refugees, they do not always persuade policymakers as much as pragmatic ones that refugees benefit the countries that welcome them.
With this in mind, it is worth highlighting arguments like that of economist Daniel Altman, who notes the clear economic benefits to countries for absorbing refugees.
Yet there is another strong argument to be made that offering temporary or permanent homes to specifically Syrian refugees is in the national interest of countries like the US. In particular, such refugees can be crucial resources in tackling the extremist violence and authoritarian excess that we are now witnessing in the Middle East.
They can do this in three specific ways.
First, they will no longer be part of the problem by escaping the immediate threat of violence or radicalization. Second, their experience can serve as an important example for others. Third, they have the skills and the background that can be put to work in the broader struggle to defeat parochialism and repression in the Middle East.
No longer part of the problem
For starters, Syrians who are repatriated out of harm’s way are unlikely future contributors to Middle Eastern religious or authoritarian violence.
The logic of this is clear; refugees are fleeing Bashar al-Assad, the Islamic State or both. Having experienced the extreme disruption of Syria’s brutal civil war caused by the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on domestic uprisings and the subsequent exploitation of this disruption by ISIS, they are unlikely to entertain illusions about the merits of violence.
Indeed, as has been the case for earlier populations of refugees, like Vietnamese-Americans, displaced Syrians should be able to appreciate the societies and people who help them during their time of need, whether or not they return to their country of origin. To assume that many Syrians are would-be jihadis after what they have experienced requires, to my mind, a leap of (paranoid) faith.
In any case, if Middle Eastern and Western governments alike fear the radicalization of Syrians, showing them compassion and generosity in their hour of need is a far more obvious strategy to address this fear than forcing them to choose between fighting or capture in Syria and possible death if they leave.
Serving as an example for others
Refugees from World War II were instrumental in calling Americans’ attention to the specific tragedies of that conflict.
For instance, Elie Wiesel’s memoir of Auschwitz, Night, which he published soon after becoming an American in 1958, remains a central testimony to the particular cruelty of the Nazi Holocaust and extreme inhumanity more generally.
The adoption of Syrian refugees by countries like the US will produce similar direct and gripping eyewitness of the massive atrocities that we know have been perpetrated by both the Assad regime and ISIS. Americans have been inspired by the story of the Pakistani student Malala Yousafzai. Syrian Malalas with stories of their own await our attention.
More specifically, if Syrian refugees are welcomed in sufficient numbers and go on to connect with a broad variety of Americans, two groups of people – both important in the struggle against violence and extremism in the Middle East – could learn from their example.
First, Syrian witnesses to the reality of ISIS could provide a reality check for alienated Muslim-Americans who romanticize, or are drawn by ISIS media handlers to the pseudo Islamic caliphate.
Second, and at least as important, the example of hardworking Syrian Muslims and Christians with harrowing stories holds the potential to provide concrete sources of empathy to those Americans inclined to stereotype Middle Easterners and Muslims. This empathy would be a counter to the sort of Western-based Islamophobia that has a role in fueling ongoing conflict between parts of the West and the Middle East.
Potential problem solvers
Most Syrian refugees who come to the US will pursue or build on the many interests and careers they developed in preconflict Syria, hopefully bolstered by the best of what America has to offer: generosity and freedom.
Some refugees, however, might use their experience and knowledge to be engaged directly in the struggle against Middle Eastern violence.
By this, I am not talking of the possibility that they could join the American military or national security agencies, although this is not out of the question.
What I want to highlight, rather, is that the refugee crisis in itself reminds us that the scale of the violence in the Middle East is massive and that further violence is unlikely to solve the problem.
Middle Eastern conflict in recent decades teaches two lessons: that repeated saber-rattling only produces more and sharper sabers, and that, as a result, the underlying dynamics of conflicts must be addressed.
Before its 2011 breakdown, Syria – with its religious and ethnic pluralism – was an unusual Middle Eastern society.
Many Syrian refugees know what it is like to live with people of other religions and other ethnicities. This experience, coupled with Syrians’ familiarity with the region and their ability to communicate in Arabic, would allow refugees so inclined to work collaboratively with officials and civilians on projects fostering tolerance and defusing conflict in the region.
In short, Syrian refugees hold key assets and life stories that can indirectly and directly contribute to the long, but necessary, struggle to defuse violent religious conflict and repression in the Middle East.
Moreover, they have the incentive to do so.
For this reason, as well as basic humanitarianism, the US should dramatically increase – and quickly – the number of refugees from Syria that it takes in.
Indeed, the same logic applies to other Western and Middle Eastern countries with a strong stake in avoiding the increasingly stark future of horrific political repression in Syria – whether in the name of Assad’s secularism or ISIS’s Islamism.
Riveting Syrian refugee tragedies like that of three-year-old Alan Kurdi should be a wake-up call. The current crisis can be turned an opportunity to make a dent in the region’s suffering once and for all.
By David Mednicoff, Assistant Professor of Public Policy; Director of Accelerated Degree Programs, Center for Public Policy and Adminstration; and Director, Middle Eastern Studies, University of Massachusetts Amherst
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