When asked by a member of the audience if peace is possible in Syria at a recent History Matters Series lecture, Professor Bruce Masters responded by saying that the United States could have brought down the Assad Regime two years ago when he used chemical weapons against his own people, but instead we did nothing. This led Hezbollah, the Iranians, and now the Russians to prop up the Assad Regime.
He ended his detailed answer by bluntly saying, “If there is a victory, it will be a pyrrhic victory. But no, I don’t see anything positive. I think Syria is going to cease to exist as a nation.” The question that then arises for anyone with an ounce of empathy is, “What can we do to help?”
President Roth and his wife, Professor of Letters Kari Weil, have asked themselves this very question and posed it to the Wesleyan community. Besides donating to the best charity organizations and petitioning for the United States to take in more than 100,000 refugees, there are macro-level decisions that can be made to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has suggested starting with enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria so that Assad cannot keep poisoning his people with chemical weapons such as mustard gas and its cousin sarin gas.
Assad’s use of sarin gas was documented by 60 Minutes the night it happened, which happened to be when UN Chemical Weapons Inspectors had entered Syria to investigate prior chemical weapon attacks. Although graphic, horrifying, and traumatizing, the footage that 60 Minutes captured of the sarin gas attack is something that every citizen of the world should watch.
Although Wesleyan-related solutions are worth considering—from the audacious, such as housing refugees in DKE, Psi U, and Beta’s vacant houses, to the pragmatic, such as bringing on Syrian refugees with PhD’s as visiting professors—our best chance as a community in addressing this crisis is to call upon those in power to make the decisions we do not have the privilege to make. A good start would be to contact Senator Michael Bennet ’87, who sits on the subcommittee of International Trade, Customs, and Global Competitiveness, and ask what he can do to help the Syrian refugee crisis. Although his committee membership does not give him as much leverage as someone on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, such as Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, Senator Bennet has the visibility and power to make much more of a difference than most members of the Wesleyan community can. Furthermore, he shares our deep desire to make a positive difference outside of the borders of which we are bound. It does not matter that many of us may not be constituents of Senator Bennet. He is still a member of our community and has more influence than most alumni do.
Another option would be for the University to match donations up to a certain amount to charity organizations helping Syrian refugees on the move and in camps. There is a despicable lack of funding for Syrian refugees in camps in Jordan and Turkey, with some families receiving as little as $14 per week for food, according to Professor Masters.
The United States ought to accept at least as many refugees as countries with smaller populations, such as Germany, who has agreed to take in 800,000 refugees. American exceptionalism ought to be radically questioned if a nation with a population four times smaller than ours is accepting eight times as many refugees.
Another important factor in our attention to the Syrian refugee crisis is the way we differentiate between Syrians on the move and Sub-Saharan Africans on the move, which was addressed by Professor Laura Ann Twagira at the forum. Citing historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s “Metalanguage of Race,” Twagira pointed out that we often subtly yet significantly differentiate various groups based on race using terms that would initially appear race-neutral, such as “migrant” and “refugee.”
In an email to The Argus, Twagira wrote, “Who is accorded refugee status and who is called a migrant is a coded language akin to the metalanguage of race. Why is the situation of African migrants, who face dangers at sea, not understood in humanitarian terms to the same extent as the current wave of Syrian refugees/migrants? Of course, Syrian refugees are just as vulnerable to a similar racialization—as evidenced by recent events in Hungary.”
Posing these questions can help us further examine why our attention and that of many public figures such as Nicholas Kristof is focused on Syrian refugees and not African migrants or even marginalized groups in the United States.
Black Americans are incarcerated at a far higher rate than people of any other race in the United States. LGBT Americans can lose their jobs and be denied housing based on their sexual orientation or gender identity in the vast majority of states. Yet here I am calling for action on the Syrian refugee crisis. This cosmopolitanism at the very least implicitly ignores the suffering of my fellow Americans, but I am not calling for a diversion of resources or attention from these equally pressing crises. Instead, I am asserting that if America is to be the world’s leader, we ought to start proving it at home and abroad. When our actions result in ignored humanitarian crises because some believe that “they” are not our problem, it is time to act, especially if we are at least partially to blame for the problem itself.
Lahut is a member of the class of 2017.