Lecture investigates Syrian civil war, refugee crisis
Article in the Observer, a newspaper serving Notre Dame and St. Mary's
A refugee of the Syrian civil war, using the pseudonym Amin Ahmed, and president of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding Dr. Georgette Bennett, both representing the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, spoke on the Syrian refugee crisis Thursday morning in Debartolo Hall.
Since protests began in March 2011, the Syrian civil war has taken its toll on the nation’s people, Bennett said. According to Bennett — who called the crisis in Syria “the worst humanitarian crisis in since World War II” — between 300,000 and 500,000 people have been killed, 12 million have been internally displaced or are in need of urgent care and four million have registered as refugees since the start of the conflict.
She said many people have a mistaken perception of these refugees.
“What you see on the news is mostly men and families, [but] this is not the typical case,” Bennett said. “You are not seeing the ones left behind and those are the most vulnerable ones.”
Many of those left behind are women and children, who make up 80 percent of refugees, Bennett said. She said despite its history of accepting immigrants, the United States has accepted only 1900 Syrian refugees since the start of the crisis, and any efforts to help these refugees have been misleading.
“The [Obama] administration has agreed to resettle 100,000 refugees, but this is 100,000 total refugees, not Syrian refugees,” Bennett said. “Syrian refugees are only 10,000 [of these refugees], that’s the quota. What you don’t hear is that the quota was higher a few years ago.”
Bennett said Notre Dame students and faculty have the ability to make a difference by doing things like starting a blanket and sleeping bag drive and using social media to combat “hate websites which are displaying erroneous information and are fueling xenophobia in this country.”
After Bennett presented the refugee crisis in numbers, Ahmed gave a personal perspective on the crisis, starting from its beginnings during the Arab Spring.
“We thought Syria was going to ride out this wave of protests, but an event in March 2011 in a city called Daraa where some school children wrote some graffiti [started the conflict],” said Ahmed. “[These children were] listening to what they heard on TV. They wrote, ‘the people want the fall of the regime.’”
Ahmed said the children were captured and tortured by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brother, a security chief in Syria. According to Ahmed, when the parents of these children asked about their children’s well-being, the security chief said in response, “Go back home and forget about your children, go back and sleep with your wives and make new children. If you do not, I’ll send my men to your wives and help them make new children.”
Ahmed said this response sparked wide-ranging protests in Daraa, which the government repressed violently.
“When the first blood was spilled on the street from these demonstrations, other people took to the street in other cities,” he said.
Ahmed said he decided to take action against the Assad regime in response.
“I could not tell my son I did nothing,” he said.
However, Ahmed said his actions against the regime had dire consequences, and he was forced to leave the country.
“I don’t think we were stupid,” Ahmed said. “I don’t regret — never a moment in my life will I regret — what I did.”
Since being forced to leave Syria, Ahmed said he has worked to help those affected by the crisis, especially the most vulnerable in this crisis, such as children.
“This is the tragedy, a lost generation,” Ahmed said. “The danger is the time bomb we will face in the future. Kids without education feel abandoned and angry. These guys will grow up and have two choices — either beg money, or fight for someone.”
Ahmed also said students at Notre Dame can help the refugees affected by the crisis.
“I hope that you will help us in saving this lost generation,” Ahmed said. “We want to stop them from being radicalized and we want them to have hope.”