Syrian Refugees: Challenge to the Left

By Ella Wind

 Metro Atlanta DSA at a welcoming refugees rally.   Photo: Reid Freeman Jenkins

As some four million refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war have entered parts of the Middle East and Europe, the Obama administration has pledged to accept a paltry 10,000. While politicians compete to see who can make the most disparaging remarks about refugees and Muslims or be the most xenophobic in denying entry to their state, the left has been slow to organize either aid or support against anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant legislation.

One little-noticed piece of discriminatory legislation, for instance, prohibits dual citizens of Syria, Sudan, Iraq, and Iran from traveling to the United States through the Visa Waiver Program. The program, which involves 38 countries, allows U.S. citizens to travel to those countries without visas and vice versa. Because people born to Syrian and Iranian fathers are automatically considered citizens of those countries, they can be denied entry to the United States even if they have never visited Syria or Iran. The legislation will likely trigger reciprocal policies from Europe, ensuring that U.S. dual nationals of these four countries no longer have the same travel rights as other U.S. citizens. The bill also affects anyone who has visited any of these countries since 2011—including aid workers, researchers, and journalists, as well as those who travel for business.

Until very recently, the burden of advocating for Syrian refugees fell largely to Syrian Americans. At the local level, these efforts have enjoyed some successes. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), a strong voice against extra screening measures, has cited the influence of local Syrian teenage activist Wadad Elaly from Chicago’s Syrian Community Network. In New York and Boston, hundreds have turned out for rallies in support of accepting more than the minuscule numbers the U.S. government hopes to resettle. (For comparison, Jordan has taken in a number of Syrian refugees that is the equivalent of the entire population of Canada moving to the United States.) Thousands of dollars’ worth of supplies have been sent to camps in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, especially from areas with large Syrian American communities such as Boston, Southern California, and New Jersey. In Houston, Latino anti-deportation activists have joined hands with the local Arab American community to support newly arriving refugee families, even as their congressional representative, Michael McCaul (R-Texas), raised fears of a “jihadi pipeline.” Although they side with the right wing on most issues, evangelical Christian resettlement groups have called on the United States to bring more Syrian refugees, as have other mainline religious groups.

But until Syrian bodies started washing up on Europe’s shores, much of the left in the United States hesitated even to talk about Syria, despite its being the single most prominent source of refugees and internally displaced people (combined) in the world and site of the bloodiest conflict of this century. For perspective, relative to the Syrian population, the refugees and internally displaced people are the equivalent of 135 million people either fleeing the United States or moving internally. Still, organizing around Syrian solidarity work has been largely restricted to those within the affected diaspora communities. Laila Abdelaziz from the Florida Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) attributes this partially to the hesitancy of refugee resettlement and advocacy groups to take on thorny political issues. “Many refugee-support NGOs [in Florida] get a plurality or majority of their funding from the state [as opposed to federal funding or donations]. Since the state controls their funding programs, they’ve been hesitant to talk. . .”

Syrians in the United States, many of whom were first politicized by the Arab Spring and the subsequent uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, learned to organize among themselves and within the broader Arab and Muslim-American communities, but their attempts to reach out to other U.S. activists on the left were received at best with lukewarm interest and at worst with condescension, scorn, and rejection. It is only now, five years on, that the left is responding.

In Boston, Syrian professor and researcher Yasser Munif credits the International Socialist Organization with doing some work, but points out that “While Muslim groups in Boston were very active early on with sending blankets and aid, Aylan Kurdi’s image [a three-year-old whose dead body was widely photographed] was really the origin of broader refugee organizing here.” Shiyam Galyon, a young Syrian-American organizer in Texas, reported that by 2015, she had become exhausted from unsuccessful efforts at trying to motivate people. “It was really hard to get people to come out when I was talking about the barrel bombs. When I tried to organize a town hall meeting with politicians and the local Syrian community it was terrible—the politicians treated it like a superficial PR event; they weren’t listening at all. I tried for a while to obtain support for a full-time organizer position in Houston for Syria, [but] no one responded until the refugee issue came into the media spotlight.”

I repeatedly heard a reluctance to talk about Syria from friends in various tendencies on the left, even those who agreed with me that the Assad regime was the foremost perpetrator of violence in Syria. Many seemed to feel that if one did not call for action in the form of intervention against the regime nothing good could come out of being actively aware of what was going on. Syria was viewed as being a distraction from the more important causes of supporting Palestinian liberation and opposing U.S. clients such as Saudi Arabia. How, I countered, can internationalists rank the importance of one country’s liberation over another, especially considering the cost of lives lost and uprooted in the case of Syria?

Furthermore, as many Palestinian activists have argued, the liberation of peoples across the Middle East suffering under the boots of dictatorial regimes is perfectly compatible with and can only further the cause of the Palestinian people suffering under the Israeli occupation. This insistence on looking away meant that the magnitude of the crisis was repeatedly underestimated, and many opportunities were missed to show solidarity and mobilize support.

As we saw with the cracks in the blockade of food and humanitarian aid to the Syrian town of Madaya—which had elicited minimal concern from the United Nations before it was brought into the public eye—grassroots advocacy and movement building is just as important to the future outcome of Syria as high-level diplomatic negotiations and proclamations from the executive office or international organizations. We need more such advocacy—urging our governments to pay their share into the ever-growing gap between what has been promised and what has been delivered for refugee relief funding, pushing to give Syrians work permits and the legal protections that come with them, and increasing humanitarian aid that can push past regime blockades.

The left may have ceded too much ground to the right, but it is finally realizing that Syria deserves our attention, even if its political problems pose extremely difficult puzzles. It is too late for those whose bodies lie on the beaches of Turkey and Greece, but not for those who still flee in terror or wait in despair. It’s no coincidence that one of the most radical movements of our time—the fight against the borders of Fortress Europe—is being led in large part by the sons and daughters of the Syrian uprising. The left must recognize that the refugee movement and the Syrian exodus are but one phase of that long struggle.

Ella Wind is a Ph.D. student in sociology at New York University. She is the unit representative for the graduate student union, GSOC-UAW 2110, and organizes around refugee issues in New York City with the MENA Solidarity Network.

This article originally appeared in the spring 2016 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

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