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Panelists discuss Syrian refugee dilemma

Tori Roeck | Monday, September 2, 2013

As President Obama rallies congressional support to intervene in the Syrian conflict, panelists Asher Kaufman, Kevin Appleby and Fr. Dan Groody discussed the volatile Middle Eastern country’s refugee diaspora Monday night in Geddes Hall.

In a presentation titled “Dignity and Justice for Migrants and Refugees: the Case of Syria,” part of the Center for Social Concerns’ lecture series on dignity and justice, the panelists covered the history of modern-day Syria, its current political conflict, the refugee crisis that resulted from it and the theology behind support for refugee rights.

Kaufman, an associate professor of history and peace studies, began the discussion relating the history of Syria since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire during World War I.

As the modern nation state of Syria developed throughout the 20th century, the Alawites, a minority group from the northeast part of the region, began to gain power in the country’s military and Ba’ath Party, Kaufman said.

“For the Alawites, the military became almost the only possibility for social mobility,” he said. “And they used another venue for social mobility and that was the Ba’ath Party, the political party that advocated Arab nationalism as the most important identity, not only for Syrians but for all Arabic-speaking peoples in the Middle East.”

Syria endured 14 coup d’états between 1949 and 1970, and during that time, the military and the Ba’ath Party converged, leading to an Alawite takeover of politics, Kaufman said.   

Hafez al-Assad, father of current leader Bashar al-Assad, took over in 1971, leading to nationwide stability, despite his ruthless tactics, he said.

“From a weak country, he turned Syria into a regional sort of a superpower,” Kaufman said. “Syria slowly but surely enjoyed a stability that it did not have before 1970.”

When Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, Kaufman said his son Bashar took power, promised reform and formed alliances with minority groups in Syria, including Jews, Christians and Sunni urbanites.

The Arab Spring arose in 2011, and Syrians realized Bashar al-Assad’s government never delivered the reform it promised, Kaufman said. The opposition deteriorated into a sectarian war.

To gain support, Bashar al-Assad told minority groups they would not survive if they did not support him, Kaufman said.

“He has played the sectarian card, using his pull with other minorities – Christians and Jews – saying that he is the supporter of their safety,” he said. “If this uprising is successful, then they will lose their own safety. They will lose their own ability to live … in Syria.”

The issues in Syria have become more complex since then, spreading to neighboring countries, Kaufman said.

“The conflict has deteriorated into … a regional conflict complex, where different states around are involved, where ethnic communities straddle the borders,” he said.

This dispersion of conflict and violence has led to a refugee diaspora from Syria into neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan. Appleby, the director of the Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs within the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), said 1.7 million refugees in the region have registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but he estimates more than two million refugees roam the area in total.
Appleby said the Middle East is experiencing “refugee fatigue” because refugees from Iraq, Palestine and Syria are all seeking permanency in the area, leading countries to contemplate closing their borders.

“You’ve got the issue of a domestic discontent over this new wave of refugees that are here that are on top of Iraqis that are also on top of other refugee populations,” Appleby said. “Governments are starting to get more restless, and it puts pressure on the governments to do more or puts pressure on the governments to close their borders. And then you’ve got a situation where people are fleeing persecution or death and they have nowhere to go.”
Appleby said it’s up to the international community to share the burden of resettlement so deserving refugees can find stability.

“Unless the international community antes up, then there’s a risk that these countries are going to close their borders, and one of the reasons that they might close their borders is because the resident population is feeling threatened,” he said.

The United States intended to resettle most of the Iraqi refugees living in Syria before the conflict erupted, but poor relations with the Syrian government prevented this from happening, leaving thousands of Iraqis stranded in turbulent Syria, Appleby said.

“We’re debating these cruise missiles going into Syria, which is a serious issue, but there’s really no discussion of this major humanitarian crisis that’s occurring,” he said. “In that way our priorities are backwards, in my opinion.”

Groody, an associate professor of theology at Notre Dame, ended the discussion by sharing some reflections from his and Appleby’s visit to the Middle East as part of the USCCB’s Syrian refugee delegation last fall.

Groody said as he stood atop Mount Nebo in Jordan, where Moses died waiting to cross into the Promised Land, he realized to a certain extent we still have not reached it because we continue to search for right relationships.

“The God who had everything migrated into the foreign, distant territory of our sinful, broken existence, and there he laid down his life on a cross so we can be reconciled to God and migrate back to our homeland,” Groody said. “What we see God doing in Jesus is constantly trying to overcome those borders, those divisions, those walls, those barriers that keep us from being in right relationships.”

Groody said four dimensions shape migration theology: crossing the inhuman/human divide, crossing the divine/human divide, crossing the human/human divide and crossing the country/kingdom divide.

When he met a Syrian woman stranded in Lebanon whose husband, three sons and grandson had all been killed, he realized that all the divides break down in the face of true suffering.

“When you really get to the place where you see the suffering of humanity in such raw form, to me it just totally dissolves many of these differences because you really see what I think is at the base of all of us, which is our basic humanity,” he said.

Groody said the Church seeks to bring a message of reconciliation in hopes that future generations will cross into the Promised Land.

“At the heart of the theology of migration is that even in these situations you must not despair because I think that the God who crossed over these borders is the same God who continues to tell us to cross over borders and try to make interconnections with our brothers and sisters in need,” he said.  

Contact Tori Roeck at vroeck@nd.edu