This past June, I participated in a CIEE (Council on International Educational Exchange) International Faculty Development Seminar in Amman, Jordan, and Istanbul, Turkey, focusing on the plight of Syrian refugees. Of course, while the sheer numbers of Syrians displaced or killed since the onset of the war in 2011, about half of Syria’s pre-war population, speak to the magnitude of this global crisis, the benefits of this program derived from historicizing, localizing, regionalizing, and globalizing our understanding of the Syrian situation within a more layered and complex context of nation building (and its accompanying exclusions), border definition (and redefinition), and forced or elective migrations, within and across borders.
Jordan, a product of the British Mandate, has a long history of taking in refugees, including Palestinians from the 1948 and 1967 wars with Israel, and more recently, Iraqis, Somalis, Sudanese, and Syrians. UNHCR now reports approximately 630,000 registered Syrians in Jordan, although an increase in unregistered Syrians could soon cause the total numbers to at least double. When Jordan first began to grant asylum to Syrians, one mechanism for legal entry, the kafala system, allowed both clan members and Palestinians from Syria to be united with Jordanian relatives who were willing to vouch for them and take them in. Increasingly, though, Palestinians are being sent back across the border or being relegated to a special camp called Cyber City (rather than Za’atari or Azraq camps), reflecting the fraught relationship the monarchy has had with Palestinians and its uneven record in granting them full citizenship.
Turkey, a nation-state that emerged from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, has long attempted to erase the vestiges of a more multicultural past, distancing itself from anything Arab and denying its Kurdish population its own identity or language rights. Although Turkey has taken in the most Syrians, — 1.9 million registered by recent UNHCR accounts — Syrians face considerable prejudice and discrimination from the Turkish population. Fear is also being propagated by Turkish political leaders in the increasingly authoritarian and conservative government regarding the influx of Syrian Kurdish refugees or Kurds in Syria gaining territory and autonomy in their fight against jihadist and Assad forces. Additionally, Syrian refugees are caught in legal limbo, as they have been classified as “guests,” placed under temporary legal protection, and unable to apply for asylum.
Despite the enormity of this crisis and the likelihood that it will continue unabated in the near future, we did have some heartening and/or poignant encounters. In Jordan, we met families from southern Syria who were taken in by clan members in a village across the Jordanian border and housed, fed, and accorded coverage for major medical expenses incurred.
We also visited an organization, Arab Legal Aid for Renaissance and Development, which, among other projects, provided musical instruments to interested Za’atari camp dwellers so they could tell their own story and develop a collective voice. In Turkey, despite the odds against forming community, we visited a Syrian café in Istanbul where Syrians gathered to socialize and share information. On a separate occasion, we met with two founders of an organization called Hamish, which fosters dialogue between Syrians and Turks through lectures, documentaries, and festivals.
Several key insights were gleaned from the seminar. First, although there are many shared struggles faced by Syrian refugees, the fact that Jordan is a postcolonial state and Turkey a post-imperial one, generates distinctive forms of exclusion and “othering.” Second, the bureaucratic compartmentalization of refugee issues among governmental and non-governmental organizations creates a false divide between internally displaced persons and external refugees, obscuring the interconnectedness of their movements and the reasons behind these movements. Finally, examining and responding to the predicament of Syrians solely as a situation requiring a humanitarian response draws attention away from the broader political context in which this crisis unfolds, removing us from sharing any obvious responsibility for our contributions to shaping the conditions of the crisis, and assisting with stopgap or military measures that either take more lives or define the recipients of aid as nameless victims, who are largely denied forums for articulating their own needs or desires.
This post was submitted by Dr. Sumi Colligan, Professor of Anthropology and Faculty Service-Learning Co-Coordinator at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.
Header photo credit: Syrian Children filling drinking water in bottles at Al-Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan. (By/ Mustafa Bader)
Attribution link: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Children_filling_water_in_Al-Zaatari_Camp.jpg