About five million people have fled Syria since civil war broke out between the Syrian government and its citizens in 2011. These Syrians fled to neighboring countries on foot, like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, looking for asylum. They are sometimes refused at the gate or placed in “refugee camps” where they face tough living conditions and are not allowed to leave until they are resettled.
Some Syrians fled by boat across the Mediterranean. With no compass, limited life jackets, crowded boats and no particular destination in mind, they faced even harsher conditions. Many boats capsized, washing the dead on the shore of the Mediterranean, like 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose lifeless image spurred an outcry for Syrian refugees on social media.
Humanitarian activists, professors and refugees from war-torn countries turned out for the “The Humanitarian Pendulum: Refugee Crisis & Humanitarianism Today” event hosted in the DeVos Center Loosemore Auditorium Thursday, April 6, that shed light on the refugee crisis of the world.
Three refugees from Syria, Sudan and Bhutan who live in Grand Rapids today spoke about their experiences as refugees and what life for them is like now.
Dhan Khatiwoda was 16 when he was forcibly evicted from his country of Bhutan at gunpoint. He fled to India and was then resettled in Nepal. He was a refugee for 17 years, living in a plastic hut with a dirt floor, with little food and water, in a refugee camp.
“It was a very miserable life,” Khatiwoda said. “Life in the refugee camp has no destiny: You do not know what is going to happen next. You are desperate, depressed, filled with anxiety. I saw refugees like me dying in hundreds every single day.”
Salah Kamal and Ibrahim Sonth had similar experiences, except that Kamal had a passport on him and was granted temporary asylum in Turkey before being resettled in the U.S.
The three refugees all agreed life was better for them in the U.S., and they all said they loved their “new country.” Still, they urged for more sympathy and compassion for refugees who are still overseas.
“I am a very proud United States citizen who will stand with refugees, and I hope you will, too,” Khatiwoda said.
Hosts of the event, Amanda Flaim of Michigan State University, Kristine Van Noord of Bethany Christian Services and Mlado Ivanovic of Grand Valley State University, introduced the topic of the refugee crisis and shared what their research and humanitarian work has revealed about the current crisis.
Van Noord talked about life in refugee camps that she witnessed during her time in the Middle East. She spoke about the process of “vetting” refugees in the camps, where their backgrounds and health are documented, all to see if they qualify as a “refugee” being someone who has a “well-founded fear of persecution in their own country.”
She said the process is extremely in-depth and involves many checks. She said it’s difficult at times for the refugees to live with all the horrors they’ve experienced, and it’s even more difficult for them to be forced to retell and relive it all again.
“It’s deeply re-traumatizing for people from the beginning when they start going through the process all the way until they arrive in the U.S.,” Van Noord said.
Once the refugees make it to the U.S., Van Noord said they are extremely “resilient” and “resourceful.”
Flaim talked specifically about the process of refugees getting resettled in the U.S. In Grand Rapids, 868 refugees were resettled in 2016, with a total of 4,257 refugees living in Michigan, most coming from Syria. Flaim stressed that refugee camps are not safe to live in and being resettled is a life-saving need for many refugees. She said the resettlement program for refugees is run through the U.S. Department of State, whose top priority is national security. She said it is possible to save the lives of the refugees and also ensure U.S. national security.
“Our concern is lives,” Flaim said. “There are so many people overseas that are ready to come, who have already gone through that incredibly in-depth screening process, and we want to be able to welcome them here.”
Ivanovic is a visiting philosophy professor at GVSU who was once a refugee himself from Serbia. His talk focused on the imagery of war, showing pictures of the ruined cities, such as Aleppo, where many refugees come from. He spoke on the dangers refugees face when they are resettled in new countries, such as the expectations of assimilation into the culture they are resettled in.
Ivanovic said another danger refugees face is the apathy of other people. He said the abundance of stories of human suffering has made people numb to their life or death situations.
“It seems today, the more we know, the less we care,” Ivanovic said.
Currently, there are 21.3 million refugees in the world, mainly from Syria and Somalia, with only less than one percent of them being resettled in different countries. So far, a total of 85,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the U.S. The Obama administration decreed in 2016 the U.S. would accept 110,000 Syrian refugees in 2017, but through executive order by President Donald Trump, the refugee program was suspended for 120 days, and the projected number of refugees coming into the U.S. was reduced to 50,000.
It is unclear if the U.S. will now change its policy on accepting Syrian refugees after the U.S. attack on Syrian air bases Thursday, April 6, following the air raid campaign by the Syrian government, which hit citizens with chemical weapons banned by the United Nations.