Syria is the great humanitarian disaster of our generation. According to Human Rights Watch’s World Report for 2017, almost 500,000 civilians have been killed with another 100,000 detained or disappeared since the start of the civil conflict in 2011. The majority of the conflict has taken place in dense urban environments, which has led to an unparalleled refugee and migration crisis.
The UN has estimated that close to eight million people have fled their homes, making this the single greatest migration of people since World War 2. To put in greater perspective, the pre-war population was estimated to only be 22 million. Some of this population is internally displaced, living in Syria, but unable to return home, while four million have fled to neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and even war-torn Iraq. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, has said, “This is the biggest refugee population from a single conflict in a generation. It is a population that needs the support of the world but is instead living in dire conditions and sinking deeper into poverty.”
As the refugee and immigration debate rages on, RVA Mag, in partnership with the non-profit media company, AP Math Labs, traveled around Virginia and Maryland talking with Syrian refugees about their experience of civil war, displacement, and eventual resettlement in the US. What started as an exploratory conversation with refugee families, ended up becoming a three-part documentary series. The stories we heard were in drastic juxtaposition to the misleading information coming out of the White House. Therefore, when making these three documentary videos, we asked ourselves one simple question: Can you imagine a scenario that starts with the physical and emotional stress of living in war – surrounded by near-constant death and destruction – and then having to make a decision to put your family in greater danger to seek sanctuary elsewhere?
This decision means traveling on roads controlled by a hostile regime that thinks nothing of killing their own people from the air and ground, facing terrorist groups like the Islamic State (IS), and being exposed to the vast network of unregulated militias, criminal syndicates, and foreign proxy groups funded by regional powers like Saudia Arabia and Iran, all for a chance to rely on the charity of foreign countries who sequester refugees in overcrowded camps that can maintain only the most basic standards of cleanliness and livability.
What we rapidly came to understand is that the emotional and physical stress experienced by these families is impossible to understand unless you have shared this experience. This is the story we set out to capture.
What we learned in this process was that for those who escaped the violence, there is little consolation living as a refugee. Research has shown that the 600,000 refugees in Jordan live on as little as three dollars a day. And as their ordeal continued, the negative consequences of being displaced persisted, such as forced marriages, child labor, and exploitation only increases. Almost half of all Syrian refugees are children under the age of 18, with the UN claiming 2.5 million are displaced – some have not been to school in years.
Since returning home is not an option, applying for refugee status is the only real hope for families seeking to rebuild their lives. Yet coming to the US as a refugee is a long and arduous process. Contrary to what anti-refugee politicians and pundits would tell you, the process is defined by countless screenings, security clearances, and evaluations. The International Rescue Committee, an international humanitarian aid organization has detailed an 11-step process for refugees, which takes anywhere from 18 months to three years for families to be cleared for resettlement. This includes in-person interviews, medical assessments, and cultural orientation – a family does not just show up at the airport and get let into the US.
The reason RVA Mag decided to make this series was to highlight the suffering of those who have experienced the worst depravities of war and conflict – to demystify the politics, and allow the human story to be told. To understand the situation of Syrian refugees from any other capacity is a travesty. And as the debate over immigration and refugee policy continues it is important that our readers have the opportunity to see and hear directly from the people who have the most at stake – the families who might be forced to return to the conditions they fled. Not to mention that spreading fear against families seeking sanctuary is anathema to the American experience and is a recent phenomenon that does not bear scrutiny. Even the conservative Cato Institute, in a research paper titled Terrorism and Immigration: A Risk Analysis, found that the chances of “an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year.”
Starting tomorrow, RVA Mag will release one video a week every Tuesday for the next three weeks at 10:00 am. You will be able to find them on our Facebook page and in the Watch section of rvamag.com. The conflict in Syria, much like the conflict over our immigration policy, continues to rage on. What is lost in all of this is the people, families, and communities whose lives have been destroyed.