Syrian Refugee Crisis: A Panel Discussion


Photo Courtesy of Alex Gordienko’17

On March 29, 2016, Loomis welcomed a panel of guests to speak about the Syrian refugee crisis, a current issue that affects us all on a global scale. Co-sponsored by the Alford Center for Global and Environmental Studies and the Norton Center for the Common Good, the event was designed as a springboard for meaningful discussion in our community. With Mr. McCandless as the moderator, the four panelists spoke of their own personal experience with the seemingly endless amount of refugees fleeing Syria, of current efforts in place to help alleviate this crisis, and of what needs to be done in the future.

Mr. LaForest introduced each of the members on the panel: Mariam Jalibi, Director of the Office of the Syrian Coalition to the United Nations; J. Anna Cabot, a fellow at the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic, University of Connecticut School of Law; Chris George, the Executive Director of Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS); and Katie Guzzi, United Nations programs manager from the Syrian Coalition.

Together these four distinguished individuals gave their insight on thought-provoking questions. What are the different oppositions groups in Syria, and what is their role in going against the government? How well to Syrian refugees accepted into the U.S. assimilate into the American society? What are some political concerns of allowing Syrian refugees into America? What happens to the refugees that are not settled?

Mariam Jalibi began by describing the current and unjust situation in Syria. The country had been ruled oppressively and dictatorially by the same family for over 45 years, and even something as harmless as a peaceful demonstration back in March 2011 was ruthlessly crushed by the military. It was only six months after this event that Syrian citizens decided to arm themselves and defend; at which point everything spiraled into the chaos it is today. Putting the current situation into shocking perspective, Ms. Jalibi stated with regret, “It is more likely for a woman to get killed, tortured, raped in Syria before she graduates high school [than not].”

Anna Cabot, on the other hand, provided a disclaimer that she didn’t necessarily specialize in Syrian refugees/affairs, but she contributed a number of crucial points, sternly noting that current U.S. refugee immigration procedure is a “bloated and unfair process.” Speaking mostly about a small part of the solution to the Syria crisis – the Syrian refugee resettlement process – Judge Cabot pointed out that being resettled into the United States is a remarkably long and difficult process which even from the beginning, excludes a large portion of all refugees, stating that they are ‘ineligible’ for resettlement. She briefly described that in order to immigrate into the United States, the refugees must be 1) part of one of three ‘priority categories;’ 2) a series of in-depth interviews detailing who these refugees are, what they have suffered, why they fear going back, etc.; 3) the U.S. government then reviews the refugees to see who is “admissible” and who isn’t; 4) if the refugees pass all of the above, they are then put through a rigorous background check that is supposed to last from 45-60 days, but can last up to 1-2 years. Judge Cabot closed by proposing a system that would be easier for refugees in need to pass through starting first with the mindset of accepting these people as refugees in need of safety. That would include, for example, making the detailed and long interviews shorter and broader, stepping away from the practice of denying refugee applicants admittance into the U.S. on the basis of minor inconsistencies in their statements.

Chris George, executive director of IRIS, made a few key points. Starting off by sharing his personal experiences living amongst Syrians in refugee camps which were in his words full of “suffering and squalid conditions,” he remarked openly that he remembered most was “the amazing hospitality that refugees had showed [him].” He was astonished that even though the refugees, had so little, had no real place to call home, and lived in dramatically poor conditions, they still made hospitality their top priority. While talking about how refugees assimilated into the American lifestyle after meeting all necessary requirement, Chris George noted something very interesting: he said that going through this entire process and immigrating to America was “a last resort,” adding also “[he’d] never met a refugee that didn’t want to go home.” But returning to the heart of the issue, Mr. George stated that America isn’t doing nearly enough to help the over 5 million refugees from Syria, noting in distaste that the “response from the U.S government has been paltry.” Even though the government has raised the immigrant and refugee acceptance quota by 15,000 per year, this does little more than put a dent in the greater problem at hand. Mr. George claims that this number must be raised to at least triple the current figure, and certain exceptions and reforms to the current system of immigration must be made in order to allow more refugees access.

Later in the discussion, Alex Lawson ’16, asked Mr. George, “Why do we set a cap on the amount of refugees we are taking?” To this point, Mr. George began by sharing that Congress appoints the quota for the amount of refugees and immigrants allowed into the U.S., and that only a small portion of this number is dedicated to Syrian refugees, while the rest is left for others in need around the world. Mr. George’s hope is that 10,000 of all the refugees accepted into the U.S. will be Syrians, but he claims that sadly “we probably aren’t going to make it” due mostly to rigorous screening process and the current heated political debate around this subject. And in his words, it is exactly because of those reasons that there is a cap on the amount of refugees: politics, fear, the unjust process, and “the fashion to criticize government,” all amount to an arbitrary cap being set.

Shifting back to the other speakers, when asked to speak about women’s issues in Syria, both Ms. Guzzi and Ms. Jalibi made several points remarking the severity of the gender segregation in Syria is. Ms. Guzzi begins by remarking that at the UN, they “work to make sure that Syrian women are part of the political process [and] part of the decision making process.” To which Ms. Jalibi added that their office already has two main projects working to improve conditions for women, stating bluntly that since “over 50% of any society…are women, they have to be at the table.”

As the panel progressed, a trend became rather obvious: every one of the four panel members identified the key issues behind the Syrian crisis, and they were all quite difficult-to-resolve issues. Whether it be the original issue of the violent and tyrannical Syrian government, or the inefficient and unfair U.S. refugee immigration process, every panelist was able to not only speak about the issues, but every panelist has dedicated a large portion of their lives to resolving these problems, whatever the cost.

“The panel was a great success!” exclaimed Mr. McCandless afterwards. “While we could have spent several hours discussing the issues, we did manage to give attendees an introduction to the crisis, and hopefully sparked further curiosity (and perhaps activism) as well. He commented on the importance of hosting such panels: “All students need to be aware of events of global importance. Understanding complicated international issues, developing a degree of empathy and a desire to affect change are all goals of an education aligned with global citizenship and the common good.” Mr. LaForest expanded on the panel’s theme of empathy by connecting to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous words, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” He further reflected that the panelists invited did more than simply expose us to the Syrian crisis with their own experiences; the experts “brought the Syrian crisis into our own lives and demanded action.”