The refugee crisis has kept me awake for many nights since the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015. It matters to me on a personal level because I am a refugee myself from Iraq and so are my parents. And I care about the lives of other refugees and also about the security of my new home, the United States.
One of the advantages that the United States has over many other countries in managing the crisis is its location. The Middle East, Afghanistan, and Sub-Saharan Africa, where most of the refugees are coming from, are far from North America. Not so for Europe: Syria and Lebanon are just on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea, and Syria and Iraq are connected by land to Turkey, which is connected to Europe. The location of the United States gives it more time to vet people who want to immigrate there—it doesn’t have refugees washing up on its shores who require immediate attention.
It’s very hard to talk about the refugee crisis without being lumped in either with the apologist Far Left or the xenophobic Far Right, which can include whole countries such as Christian-dominated Mexico. But some people on the secular Left have raised concerns that I think are very legitimate. One is whether some of these refugees will pose a threat to liberal values, such as freedom of speech and the rights of women and LGBTs, etc. A majority of these refugees do come from illiberal countries, a point Bill Maher has raised. They have faced years of religious indoctrination and have known nothing but living under dictatorships and in poverty, which will make it difficult for them to learn new ways of looking at things.
For example, take the case of Rami Ktifan, a Syrian asylum-seeker who made it to Germany and decided to come out as gay. “What followed over the next several weeks, though, was abuse—both verbal and physical—from other refugees, including an attempt to burn Ktifan’s feet in the middle of the night. The harassment ultimately became so severe that he and two other openly gay asylum seekers were removed from the refugee center with the aid of a local gay activist group and placed in separate accommodations across town,” according to the Washington Post (October 23, 2015).
There are three things that can be easily concluded from this story. First, there are asylum seekers who would literally be killed if they came out as gay in their home countries, which makes their applications hard to decline. Second, refugees can be victims and oppressors at the same time. I am more than certain that most of the people who committed verbal or physical abuse against Rami have been oppressed or probably lost some members of their families due to conflicts in their own countries. Third and most important, refugees are not monolithic in their circumstances and want to escape their countries for many different reasons.
There is one question that is hardly ever asked, especially when it comes to Syrian refugees: If a political solution can be found there that would make life for its citizens orderly and safe, would many refugees go back? And if a political solution is not found, does that mean that eventually most Syrians will try to leave the country? I think the answer to both questions is yes, which stresses the need to find a political solution.
If there is one thing to be learned about the Paris attacks by ISIS, it is that what happens in the Middle East doesn’t stay in the Middle East. One of the biggest mistakes made by the United States in its invasion of Iraq was that it didn’t allow enough time for a transitional nonsectarian government to develop after the end of the rule of Saddam Hussein—one that would have laid the foundation for an inclusive government that would have reduced the sectarian tensions that built up over decades of dictatorship. One fact about dictators that is mostly ignored is that they kill everyone who opposes their rule. Only those who don’t care about life become the opposition. Who are these people who don’t care about life? The jihadists.
That is what has led to the rise of ISIS and the Sunni majority in Syria—seeing ISIS as a better alternative than the Shia-backed dictatorship of Bashar Al- Assad or not seeing the Assad regime as a regime worth defending. The majority of those who refuse to pick sides in this ugly conflict that has been going on for more than a half-decade now are those who escape and become refugees. Their numbers will keep rising as the conflict gets more and more brutal.
There is a need right now to break this cycle of violence and support a third-party government, even if it doesn’t currently have enough popular support to function on its own. This transitional regime must be secular and inclusive and fight terrorism regardless of its sect of origin. People must not feel threatened by the possibility that if another sect takes over, it will favor its members or support cleansing. In Iraq we had an example of that. It was called the Ayad Allawi transitional regime. Unfortunately, then–President G. W. Bush backed it because he wanted to score political points in domestic politics by showing that he “built a democracy” in Iraq.
What can be learned from the Iraq mistake can be used to solve both of Iraq’s and Syria’s current problem of ISIS controlling almost a third of each country. New options need to be on the table now, because they are the only viable way to end this conflict and reduce the number of refugees fleeing these countries.
There is no doubt that there are certain people who would not be able to live even under the transitional government, and that includes LGBTs and members of religious minorities in both Iraq and Syria. But the number of people needing asylum would still be reduced by a huge percentage and would not include the extremists whom many people fear would move to the countries they are escaping to, because there would no longer be extremists.
What is needed right now in the United States is less polarization in the discussion about refugees and more action toward helping Iraq and Syria achieve secular and more inclusive governments. This doesn’t necessarily mean only putting American boots on the ground but rather working within the international community to make sure a political transition is possible. That includes working with countries in the region such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, and also Russia, which is now playing an important role in protecting Assad as well as destroying the chances for any alternative, third political party to develop.