As an attorney based in the Middle East, I have witnessed scenes that would draw tears from a stone, scenes that have made the gravity of the Syrian refugee crisis terribly clear to me. In the streets of Beirut, I was astonished by the number of Syrian mothers cradling their infants, begging for money to buy medicine, some succumbing to prostitution, trading their bodies for loaves of bread. In Jordan, an infrastructure already strained with water scarcity and rising energy prices is now buckling under the weight of more than half a million Syrian refugees. In Iraqi Kurdistan, countless refugees and internally-displaced persons have been reduced to eating grass to survive.
In my travels, I met orphans separated from all known relatives, innocent bystanders rendered limbless by bomb shrapnel, children who bear psychological and physical scars, widows unable to treat terminal illnesses and families whose breadwinners one day never returned home, never again to be seen, leaving behind a family unable to pay for food, medicine and shelter. I have met refugees that have been displaced multiple times—first from Homs to other areas of Syria, then back to Homs, and finally forced to flee Syria altogether. I have met Palestinian refugees who for decades lived peacefully in Syria, only to be forced to flee to urban centers or camps in Lebanon or Jordan. I have met young children robbed of their childhood, forced to work to survive, loaded with burdens too heavy to bear. Many of these children have only known human suffering. Theirs is a land marked by blood and gore, ruled by heartless, lawless men.
For countless refugees, the Mediterranean Sea has become a graveyard. One Syrian child whose small, lifeless body washes up on our shores is too many; 13,000 child victims of war is inadmissible.
As I visited refugee camps in Syria’s neighboring countries, I witnessed first-hand the challenges refugees face on a daily basis in their struggle to survive—shortages of food, medicine and other provisions, the inability to care for the sick, the daunting journey from Syria into surrounding countries—for many refugees, undertaken by foot, often carrying small children and the wounded and injured; sometimes undertaken in the bitter cold of winter.
These are the stories I felt compelled to tell. The result was this book.
1. Book Origins
In April of 2014, I travelled to Amman to attend a course on international law. While I was in Jordan, I arranged a visit to Za‘tari Refugee Camp, just north of Amman. Having read about this colossal camp countless times in feature-length newspaper and magazine stories, I decided to see it for myself.
Kilian Kleinschmit, the “Mayor” of Za‘tari Refugee Camp , discussed with me the scope of the Syrian refugee crisis and the critical need for public-private partnerships in securing contributions of knowhow and expertise for refugee relief.
That visit changed my outlook on the Syrian refugee crisis. No longer was the crisis an abstract event only to be heard about through the media. Now, it was real. Having encountered a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude, I naturally felt a duty to act, to mobilize whatever resources I had at my disposal to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people.
The initial fruit of my visit to Za‘tari Refugee Camp was a partnership that I established between my law firm, Dentons, and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which provides assistance and protection to Syrian refugees in camps and in urban centers. Upon my return from Amman, I spoke to the regional management of Dentons about setting up a partnership to provide advice to the NRC on the legal protections offered to refugees in Jordan. Dentons’ leadership embraced the proposal, and in the ensuing months, Dentons offered the NRC pro bono legal advice through a partnership that expanded from Jordan to Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey.
The more I visited refugee camps, the more I learned how much there was to discover. I learned about the special vulnerability that women face, both from the perspective of gender-based violence and, for many, the dangerous conditions for giving birth in refugee camps. I learned of families unable to seek medical treatment or pay deposits that many hospitals require before doctors would even see them. I heard far too many stories of infants dying at birth due to wholly-preventable causes. In my travels to Iraq, I became aware of the 4 million internally-displaced Iraqi’s who, in the shadow of the Syrian refugee crisis, barely receive media attention. Throughout the region, I discovered an entire lost generation of Syrian children, deprived of an education and opportunities to thrive in safe, secure environments.
|Abu Haitham’s legs were amputated after they were crushed under a crumbling wall following a bombing in Aleppo. He poses next to two prosthetic devices that replaced his legs.|
|Umm Haitham struggles to support six children with an allowance of USD 67.50 that she receives from UNHCR each month.|
As I peered across my camera lens at these innocent children, I thought many times of my own children. And I also recognized that had my own family not escaped Syria just one generation earlier, I could have been one of these refugees. I could have been the subject of this book, rather than its author and photographer; my own children could have been on the other side of the camera lens.
|Far too many children have been physically and psychologically wounded In the Syrian civil war. Hassan, who lost three fingers due to bomb shrapnel, is one of thousands of children who have been crippled or mutilated in the Syrian civil war.|
|The requirement for children to work to support their families, the cost of enrollment and the lack of space in schools are among the reasons refugees give for not enrolling their children in schools in Lebanon.|
I also learned of the particular complexity of reaching a political and diplomatic resolution to the armed conflict, one which would end the civil war and allow Syrian refugees to voluntarily repatriate to and rebuild their country. The Syrian civil war is no longer merely an internal disturbance comprised of sporadic outbreaks of armed violence, one that can be quelled with legal reforms granting broader legal rights to a restless Syrian population. Rather, the Syrian conflict has become a complex proxy war between nations that recognize the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and those that support Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. This conflict has thus pinned Western nations and the Arabian Gulf States against Bashar Al-Assad’s allies, including Russia and Iran. In the midst of this proxy war, countless armed groups have infiltrated Syria, either in support of or in opposition to Al-Assad’s regime, many of which enjoy financing and support from foreign governments.
Syria’s civilian population has become the principal victim of this proxy war. Trapped within Syria or in the surrounding refugee camps, and with Western nations and Arabian Gulf States having limited their refugee resettlement programs, there is little prospect that the living conditions of these refugees will be alleviated anytime soon. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that in 2015 alone, more than 10 million Syrians—half of the country—was in need of life-saving assistance. This figure is more than every man, woman and child in New York and San Francisco combined, or Dubai and London combined, or Berlin combined with Madrid and Rome.
|Pictured with a Kurdish Peshmerga soldier defending the front line against ISIS in Iraq.|
|Kurdish Peshmerga ceremony honoring soldiers in the battle against ISIS.|
As each visit to the refugee camps gave me a greater glimpse of the complexity of the refugee crisis and of finding durable solutions, I planned further visits. The visit to Za‘tari Refugee Camp gave rise to the visit to Jabal Al-Hussein Refugee Camp in Amman, which in turn inspired the visit to informal tented settlements in the Beqa‘ (Bekaa) Valley of Lebanon, which led to the camps of Iraqi Kurdistan, and so forth.
The result was this book, which tells the story of Syrian refugees, their living conditions, their rights under international and local law, the application of these rights, the discrepancy between law and practice, the prospects of refugee resettlement and local integration, the challenges that stand in the way of durable solutions and the fate of the refugees as Syria is further drawn into a protracted armed conflict, which is increasingly taking on an international character.
The Syrian civil war has divided a nation and triggered the greatest humanitarian tragedy of the 21st century. Syria has been torn apart by sectarianism, a virulent strain whose wanton and widespread destruction has known no limits. If we fail to act, an entire generation will grow up not knowing human compassion. If we continue to demonstrate indifference to the plight of the Syrian people, a generation of Syrians will normalize violence and indifference to human suffering.
The Syrian War also gives humanity a chance to act. We can demonstrate human compassion in a way that history has never known. We can restore human dignity to the victims of the conflict, seeking justice for the needy, defending the fatherless, pleading for widows, visiting the distressed in their trouble. We can undo their heavy burdens, free the oppressed and feed the hungry. We can open the doors of our homes to the poor and the vulnerable who have been cast out.
It is no longer possible to ignore the Syrian refugee crisis. The Syrian people are knocking, and before each of us is a choice. Do we open the door?
Day after day, while beheadings make headlines and war crimes reach new milestones, thousands of humanitarians go to work in Syria and its surrounding countries, relentlessly confronting all of the psychological challenges inherent to working in conflict zones, making personal and familial sacrifices to defend human dignity, save lives and to deliver aid and assistance where it is most needed, even at the risk of their own lives. It is my hope that by telling the story of Syrian refugees, readers will become inspired to act similarly.
Some say Syria will never be the same. I am not of this camp. As one refugee at Za‘tari Refugee Camp so poignantly stated, “the Syrian people are very capable. We can rebuild [Syria] better than before.” Though it may sound romantic, I believe the transformative power of love always triumphs over violence and destruction. Yet though it may seem out of tune to the modern ear, mine is a view that sees the world in a perpetual struggle, with good and kindness and decency always triumphing over cruelty. Such a view requires a great deal of faith and patience, especially when we are inundated with so much news of seeming injustice. Yet despite what we may see or hear, I never doubt that, in the end, truth and justice never fail. In Syria, I see the potential to rebuild a nation, to triumph over those forces that seek her destruction. In Syria, I see hope and a future.
2. A Personal Account
Born to parents who emigrated from Syria to the United States, I first visited Syria as a teenager with my father. My travels to the historic cities of Aleppo, Damascus, Lattakia and Homs in many ways left an indelible mark on me. In these cities, I encountered a culture that was so different from what I knew in the West. In Syria, life was centered on family, relationships and community rather than jobs or careers. Syria was not a rich country by any means, but on her streets, I never encountered mendicants or the homeless. Families and local communities, rather than governments, took responsibility over the poor and afflicted.
Throughout my travels in Syria, I visited families that exemplified the virtue of hospitality. I was welcomed to homes with generous spreads of kibbeh and kebabs, varieties of salads garnished with fresh mint, platters of labneh, hummus and baba ghanoush, rainbows of dates, figs and olives and fresh-baked pita loaves, with steam rushing out when broken. Hosts would spend hours with their guests over meals, and would find any occasion to celebrate with music, singing, clapping of hands and the beating of the Arabic drum. Visits to family and family friends were often unannounced and spontaneous, but always welcomed with Arabic pastries, fragrant teas and potent coffee.
It would be difficult for me to forget the hospitality of the Syrian people, whose generosity invariably displayed a preference of giving over receiving, no matter how little the host had to give. It was a hospitality that time and again drew me back to Syria, culminating with my US State Department assignment to the US Embassy in Damascus in 2010, just before the start of the Syrian uprising.
As I prepared the manuscript of this book, I reviewed journal entries that I wrote during my assignment as an attorney in Damascus. One of my November 2010 entries summed up my observations of Syria at the time. I remarked how in many cities of the world, streets are left barren following sunset for fear of crime and violence, but in Damascus, there was no such thing. I wondered if crime ever existed in the ancient city. I was unable to describe how pleasant it was on a Thursday evening to walk through the gardens and the public squares in Damascus, where one finds entire families sitting out together on lawns, listening to music, telling stories, roasting nuts and breaking bread together, right up into the morning hours. Friends met and greeted one another on the streets, with no fear of the “other,” no fear of strangers. The entire cityscape was marked by genuine friendships and close-knit community.
How things have changed. Today, there are no quiet saunters under the Damascene moonlight without the fear of crime or violence. Every city has its rebel groups, its soldiers, its armed guards and militias. Homes and shops are bombed and then plundered. Today, five years after my last visit to Syria, many of the homes and cities I visited have been destroyed. The homes that remain standing have been left empty and hollow, their former occupants having fled, preferring refugee camps over air strikes and gunfire. The music, laughter and clapping that once filled their homes have been replaced by the unceasing din of bombs, bullets and blasts.
Though Syria is largely in ruins, my memories of Syria endure, giving rise to a hope of what Syria can once again become. It is with this hope to preserve and rebuild Syria, together with a desire to inspire others to take action, that I undertook to write this book. After all, a single image of three-year old Aylan Kurdi, drowned and washed up on the shores of Turkey, galvanized the world into action in September of 2015. Nilüfer Demir’s photograph of that small, lifeless body, pummeled by the waves of the Mediterranean, shook the world out of silent indifference.
If this book could similarly mobilize actors to protect Syrian refugees, to bring healing to the sick, mercy to orphans and widows, comfort to those who mourn, and restoration to those bereft of hope, then this book would have fulfilled its purpose.
3. Am I My Brother’s Keeper?
The Syrian civil war has triggered a humanitarian crisis of biblical proportions. At the time of this writing, 4.3 million Syrians had registered with UNHCR and at least 7.6 million more had been internally displaced within Syria. The refugee crisis has taken a toll on the economies and political stability of Syria’s neighbors in the Middle East and has triggered Europe’s greatest migrant crisis since World War II. Each day, hundreds or thousands of civilians cross international borders, and countless others are left behind, trapped in a violent cycle of retaliation between state forces and non-state actors. Innocent civilians remaining in Syria witness and experience egregious violations of the most basic norms of international law. The wanton and widespread destruction of property has become normalized in Syria, as has the taking of hostages, bombarding populous towns and villages, denying consent to humanitarian organizations’ access to vulnerable civilian populations and the enslavement and sale of women and children.
|Su‘ād, a widow with two sons, is in need of a LBP 4 million (USD 2,667) cardiac catheterization that she cannot afford.|
The scale of the Syrian civil war is staggering. It has already dramatically reshaped demographics in the Middle East, having displaced hundreds of thousands of religious minorities, including Christians, Shia’s and Yazidis in Iraq and millions of Syrians across the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and beyond. Today, more than half of the Syrian population has been displaced, a phenomenon almost without precedent in human history.
In responding to the bloodshed today being witnessed in Syria, we are confronted with a question: Am I my brother’s keeper? In responding to images of human suffering, our first choice is to turn a blind eye. After all, we have our own problems to deal with. Our second choice is to respond to the images as though their subjects were our own mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, husbands and wives—when a Syrian child is robbed of his family and is left fending for himself in the streets of Istanbul or Beirut, it is as though our own child has been robbed, left to fend for himself in a cold, indifferent world; when a Syrian refugee has been displaced and rendered homeless three times, each time by a new crisis or armed group, it is as though our own brother has been rendered homeless; when a Syrian mother is on the verge of death, about to leave her children as orphans, because she cannot afford medicine for an otherwise curable disease, it is as though our own mother is on the verge of death. It means viewing all of humanity as the victims of the Syrian crisis; if one Syrian suffers, we all suffer with him.
The response to the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is an unequivocal “yes.” This answer is not based merely on abstract moral or ethical principles; our responsibility to protect is firmly founded on legal principles as well. The international community has come together and ratified countless treaties undertaking to not only refrain from violating basic human rights, but also to ensure the protection of such rights. Consider, for example, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which requires States party to not only refrain from violating basic rights such as the right to life (Art. 6 ICCPR), freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Art. 18 ICCPR), but also to ensure the protection of these rights from other member States’ violations (Art. 2(3) ICCPR), thus incorporating an affirmative duty to act. Similarly, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPG) requires not only that its 140 States party refrain from carrying out the crime of genocide, but also that they “undertake to prevent and to punish” genocide (Art. I CPPG). How, then, can anyone respond to the attempted extermination of religious minorities, including Christians and Yazidis in occupied Syria and Iraq, retorting with indifference, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
|Pictured with Hassan Muslim Mustafa at Kawergosk Refugee Camp in Iraq. Like many of his Syrian neighbors, Hassan's chief complaint was, "I am hungry; I have no food."|
In reaffirming our common humanity, we must view every Syrian—whether Alawi, Christian, Druze, Shi’ite or Sunni; whether Arab, Assyrian, Circassian, Kurdish or Turkic—as our neighbor, and commit to treat that neighbor as ourselves. When confronted with images that shock our conscience, we must invest our time, talents and resources in freeing Syria from the scourge that ravages her people.
Whether it is through your workplace, through your contacts in government, media or education, through your wealth, your entrepreneurial spirit, your artistic abilities or professional skills—whether in administration, engineering, finance, law, medicine, marketing or teaching—join me in putting your gifts, talents and skills to work for the Syrian people. Join me in restoring hope and a future to the people of Syria.
In joining Syrian refugees in rebuilding their country and reclaiming their dreams, even when it costs us our own comfort and security, even when it means enduring all things, even risking our lives, we can—we will—restore the hope of the Syrian people and revive their faith in the future. In sowing bountifully, we will reap bountifully, for seeds of hope generously planted will yield a generous harvest—a bright future, a world that guarantees the dignity and worth of the Syrian people and secures their fundamental freedoms and inalienable rights; one that asserts that Syrians are our brothers and sisters as members of the human family; a world based on the bedrocks of justice and peace, where governments respect human rights and the rule of law and are founded on the principles of the dignity and worth of the individual; one where children are not wrenched from their parents by barbarous acts of violence, but rather, are raised by their families in safe, happy environments; one where children know peace rather than war, kindness rather than cruelty, plenty rather than famine; a world marked by a spirit of brotherhood rather than a spirit of fear, one where hope overcomes all things.
[End of Book Excerpt]
|I made many friends while visiting Syrian refugee camps. I promised them I would not forget them, and that I would bring back help.|
I had the privilege of meeting the many brave men, women and children that make up Syrian's nearly 5 million refugees. Please help them by purchasing copies of my book, Hope and a Future: The Story of Syrian Refugees. All proceeds will be donated to relief organizations aiding Syrian refugees.
Copies of the book will be on sale at the Syrian-American Medical Society's Tri-State Annual Gala on Friday, September 9, 2016. All proceeds from the sale will be donated to the Syrian-American Medical Society. For more information and to register for the Gala, click here.
The Syrian-American Medical Society is a not-for-profit organization that provides humanitarian assistance to Syrians in need. To learn how to volunteer on a medical mission in Lebanon or Jordan, click here.