As a non-Syrian American working for and among the Syrian-American community, it’s been hard to look my colleagues in the eye recently. Members of the GOP, in particular but not exclusively, have been on TV comparing my coworkers’ relatives and friends to dogs and terrorists. Chris Christie even made the truly revelatory statement that he would be afraid of a Syrian five-year-old. The rhetoric is cynical, disgusting and almost certainly motivated by the most pessimistic and ugly kind of politics.
But for Syrian-Americans, racism did not begin with Paris, and disappointment and betrayal did not start with last week’s passing of a House bill that would make it essentially impossible for Syrian refugees to resettle in the U.S. (at least temporarily). As the Obama administration attempts to cast itself as both the defender of American values and a protector of refugee interests, it is important to understand the history of the relationship between the White House and the Syrian-American community. It is a difficult history, and one in which the Republicans’ latest racist outburst is not a new or isolated incident, but an outgrowth of an American consensus – initiated and intentionally fostered by our president – that Syria just isn’t America’s problem.
For the Syrian-American community, the question of whether to focus almost exclusively on humanitarian/refugee advocacy, or ask America for more robust engagement to end the conflict, is one the president himself answered early on through aggressive rhetoric. Again and again between 2011 and 2013, President Obama said that the American government, and perhaps even some of its resources, stood with the Syrian revolution as it attempted to cast off the shackles of one-family rule. This rhetorical commitment always outpaced action, and our advocacy community struggled to reconcile the president’s tone on television with the attitude we were actually met with in meetings with the administration.
I can remember the first meeting I attended at the State Department. It was a conference between agencies that dealt with refugees (PRM, DHS, USAID) and members of the Syrian-American community. The meeting, which took place in the spring of 2013, was essentially an explanation of the logistical challenges preventing the United States from having a meaningful resettlement policy. It was explained to us that, even as Temporary Protected Status would be extended for Syrians already here, identifying acceptable candidates for resettlement would begin in earnest only later in 2013, and it would take 18 months or so for refugees to be processed and arrive. One community member asked: Given the U.N. assessments of the gravity of the refugee crisis, and the precarious situation in host nations that are U.S. allies such as Jordan and Lebanon, would the U.S. consider some extraordinary mechanism to increase and speed up processing such as the special immigrant visas that were made available to Iraqis and Afghans who worked with coalition forces? The answer, from a PRM (Population, Refugees and Migration) official, was as startling as it was cold: “Iraqis didn’t get a special immigrant visa for five years, and that war was our fault.”
This smug detachment has typified the actual administration perspective on Syrians and their troublesome war. Far from the lofty rhetoric of an Obama speech, appealing to the importance of values he would never enforce, representatives of the administration have consistently reminded Syrian-Americans not to expect much, and that their tragedy is one item on a long list of unpleasant “community issues” that administration bureaucrats must suffer through. “Are you all still here? The Ukrainians have to come yell at us at 1, we’ll see you next week.”
This attitude was on display again this week when the State Department’s PRM office once again held a meeting with the community. Asked why the resettlement program was so limited to begin with, the administration official responded: “In 2013 we thought the conflict was close to an end, so we were not focused on resettlement.” Whether this statement represents malice or incompetence is anyone’s guess.
This administration cannot honestly expect Syrian-Americans to see an ally in this government when it still basically has no refugee policy, to say nothing of their totally elusive Syria policy. The 10,000 number proposed for resettlement in FY 2016 represents .0008 percent of the population seeking resettlement. Much smaller countries (both in terms of land and population) such as Germany have committed to taking upward of 1 million. The United States never had a refugee policy. It had a “what is the minimum required to say we are doing something” policy. That such a non-policy itself should come under fire from the opposite side is an indictment of American politics, and the fear-mongering surrounding terrorism. It is certainly not evidence of a substantial or compassionate resettlement program.
To be clear, the Republicans are responsible for their racist rhetoric and should be pilloried for it, but we have only one president. Only one man, who said after another “president” gassed his own people that “if we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons” and then let Assad simply turn over a portion of its stockpiles. Only one man, who, according to some close to the president, was happy to see his train-and-equip program fail, so that he could distance himself further from the Syrian mire. Only one man, who, acknowledging that this refugee crisis was the worst since World War II, asked his State Department to settle about 2,000 Syrians in the United States over more than four years of conflict, even as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon swell to bursting and cast their overrun into the sea on to Europe. If the American president is what passes for a “friend” then the Syrians are surely doomed.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.
Top image: House speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin quotes testimony from Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson and FBI director James Comey during a news briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015, where he spoke about refugees, Syria and immigration. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)