Refugees Welcome?

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Miguel Angel Hernandez
Miguel Angel Hernandez

Thirty-seven of my family members are refugees. They are scattered in different parts of the Middle East and Europe — 20 are internally displaced within Syria and nine members of my family, to date, have been killed in the ongoing civil war.

As a Syrian, I’m experiencing a profound sense of loss. I have come to terms with the fact that I might never be able to see them again, yet their safety is still important to me.

If I can never see my family again, if our communication continues to dissolve with worsening circumstances, I will still advocate in their best interest. I want to use my voice to relay their pains and ensure that if they needed a place to go, they would be able to find it.

Like anyone else, I imagined my parents would be present when I walk at my graduation. With no faces to witness my achievement, I will walk my graduation alone. I have the U.S. government to thank for its nearly impossible restrictions on Syrians. For a nation of immigrants — built on the backs of immigrants — the U.S. immigration policy and annual refugee quota is ironic.

North America has always been a destination for immigrants. The first native inhabitants crossed the Bering Land Bridge thousands of years ago. Over the past 200 years of U.S. history, immigrants found their way and continue to do so today.

The motives of immigrants vary. But refugees leave their homes not out of choice but out of pure necessity. Refugees are forced to resettle in other countries due to war, conflict or fear of persecution.

Refugee inflows occurred in waves — Irish citizens fleeing starvation during the Potato Famine, post-WWII refugees and post-Vietnam War refugees, just to name a few major refugee immigration landmarks.

The current Syrian refugee crisis is unprecedented in scale. It is not just a Syrian problem — it is a humanitarian problem.

Despite popular belief, the Middle East is doing as much as it can. The region hosts the most refugees by far. Lebanon is hosting the equivalent of a third of its population in Syrian refugees. As of today, there are 4,835,909 registered Syrian refugees recorded by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This figure encompasses refugees harbored only in regions of the Middle East such as Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan. Over 2 million of them, recorded in 2015 by United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), are children under 18.

In Europe, between April 2011 and February 2016, there have been almost a million individual refugee applicants concentrated in areas like Germany and Serbia.

In the U.S., 36 were granted asylum in 2013, according to U.S. Homeland Security statistics. By accepting only a few dozen refugees, the U.S. failed miserably to account for the severity and scale of this emergency.

Refugee camps in Lebanon and Turkey have long reached capacity. Overflowing with people and severely underfunded, the terrible conditions push refugees to take great risks. The crisis of displacement presents an oxymoron in itself — safe havens that lack safety.

Many refugees are venturing across land and sea, through vast and dangerous distances, looking for safety. In a desperate search for alternatives, some share the same fate as Aylan Kurdi, a young boy who washed up on the shore of Bodrum, Turkey.

In 2014, the UNHCR designated 130,000 Syrians in refugee camps who are in dire need of resettlement by 2016. The U.S. usually resettles at least half of UNHCR designated refugees but has yet to do so with Syrians.

Furthermore, the U.N. has recommended the U.S. to accept a minimum of 65,000-100,000 Syrian refugees. The U.S. responded by pledging to increase its quota to 10,000 refugees — only 10 percent of the recommended amount.

The U.S. shields itself from criticism with 9/11 rhetoric, reiterating its fear of terrorism at every given occasion. This fear plays on emotion and produces stereotypes. This fear is the barrier between an innocent refugee and their chance at having a stable life again.

This kind of rhetoric is toxic and perpetuates falsehood. It frames all Syrians as one unified religious entity. It connotes that Islam and terrorism are one and the same, and it fails to acknowledge that terrorism has no name or religion. And if it did, Muslims are disproportionately skewed targets of this radical terrorism and sectarian war.

Americans owe a degree of solidarity to the European and Middle Eastern states dealing with the influx of refugees, and it should share the humanitarian burden.

The U.S. cannot continue to assume that other states can suddenly absorb the pressures of harboring large numbers of people without any assistance. By closing its doors to desperate people, the U.S. risks weakening its ties with the West and the fragile Middle East. It is also falling short of its own expected standard as the world’s self-acclaimed “strongest power.”

America takes pride in leading the world, taking on roles as the world’s watchdog and caretaker. This shouldn’t be any different. By setting an example of great morality and accepting more refugees, the U.S. will give other nations incentive to do the same.

The support of the largest immigrant nation is key. For some, it could mean safety. For me, it would mean seeing my dad again.

Just being here is a privilege. An education, a home and the ability to live is my privilege. And I accept my privilege.

Migration is a human right; barring access to anyone’s safety is inhumane. Syrians, like my family and me, like all others, deserve to flee conflict and live with dignity.