Why America Must Still Help the Syrian Refugees


Last Friday, the world became a little more fearful. By now we are all aware of ISIS’ attacks in Paris and Beirut that claimed the lives of over 170 people. The discussion has since moved on from one of mourning to one of action, with people wondering how to best prevent another attack. One popular response has been to cease accepting refugees from Syria, on the grounds that they could potentially be terrorists. That would be a dreadful mistake. As I discussed in a previous column, millions from the Middle East and North Africa have been fleeing from their homes in search of a better life. All their stories are different, but many flee violence from terrorists like ISIS and Boko Haram, from economic stagnation, poverty, oppressive governments, or, in the case of Syrian refugees, civil war. This fall, the West has offered a more robust response, with Germany accepting over 800,000 refugees, and America promising to accept at least 10,000 from Syria. Immediately after the Paris attacks, many in America called for rejecting any future refugees, fearing that terrorists will use the refugee crisis to infiltrate the west and launch more attacks.

The chorus calling for refugees to be refused or deported has been fast growing: Speaker Paul Ryan and the House passed a bill that would cease plans to accept more Syrian refugees. Thirty-one state Governors have announced that they will not accept any Syrian refugees, a plan that has dubious constitutionality. All the GOP Presidential candidates also agreed to stop accepting refugees, but some added their own flair to their rejection; Bush and Cruz have called for religious tests for refugees, arguing that Christians should be allowed in but not Muslims. Kasich proposed a new government agency to promote Judeo-Christian values. Trump suggested that all Muslims should be registered in a government database, and that mosques should be put under surveillance and some possibly shutdown. Not to be outdone, Christie proclaimed that he’d reject all Syrian refugees, even “orphans under the age of five,” and Ben Carson likened the refugees to rabid dogs. The divided GOP field has been united by a fear of Syrian refugees.

The problem is that this fear of Syrian refugees is unfounded at best and prejudiced at worst.  It’s not even clear if the attackers were refugees, So far, the only identified attackers have been European nationals, citizens who would have been able to launch their attack regardless of whether or not the government accepted Syrian refugees. The narrative doesn’t work in America, either: our screening process for refugees actually does a good job. Out of the 784,000 refugees taken in by America since 9/11, exactly three have been arrested for terror activities. American citizens with guns have been far more of a threat to American lives than any number of refugees. There’s simply little evidence that refugees are any more likely to be agents of terrorism. In fact, most of the Syrians have great reason to oppose ISIS. It was ISIS that helped tear their country apart. It was ISIS that destroyed their homes and killed their loved ones. For many, ISIS is the very thing they’re fleeing.

Many of these proposals by Presidential candidates, I would argue, are simply Islamophobic. Islamophobia is a phrase bandied too often in politics, but I would defend its use here. The GOP candidates, with little evidence for why the refugees present a threat, haved used the actions of a few to characterize an entire religion. When Bush, Cruz, Trump and others demand that Muslim refugees be rejected while Christians are accepted, they are calling for discrimination. They are calling for a group of people to be denied a chance at a better life, or in the case of some, a chance to live at all, not because of their individual actions or crimes or merits, but just because they identify with a certain religious faith. The GOP is quick to say that they are at war with radical Islam, not Muslims. However, when you are treating all Muslims as if they could become radical jihadists, you are waging a war on Islam. It turns out what is prejudiced is politically expedient: a majority of voters oppose taking in Syrian refugees. Playing to voters’ fears, rather than working to challenge them, is an easy way to gain votes in this primary.

This exercise in fear and prejudice, however, is just what ISIS wants. Rejecting Muslim refugees sends a clear message that America is not sympathetic to the plight of Muslims. For the refugees who are deported or sent back, many would face a choice between fighting to survive in the malnourished refugee camps outside of Syria, or joining ISIS. For Muslims in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, if the West is no longer willing to accept Muslim refugees, then perhaps they’d get a better shake under the security of ISIS. For other Syrians, for the ones who would never join ISIS, if they don’t find a better home in the west, they will starve in a refugee camp or die at the hands of ISIS or Assad. 129 people were killed in Paris. I don’t want our fear of ISIS to claim the lives of more. That gives ISIS a greater victory than it deserves.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Republicans and Democrats have a chance to exercise great moral courage. By helping the Syrian refugees, America has the opportunity to show that, even when our allies are attacked, we do not give up our values in fear. We must not add reason, pluralism, protection of human life, and compassion to the list of casualties ISIS can claim, for those values are what make us better than their Caliphate. A great evil was committed in Paris. We must respond to it, yes, by increasing our attacks against ISIS, but also by responding to that evil by showing that we can do good. Let’s make this our first great victory against ISIS.

Our country has a tremendous capacity for greatness. With each act of courageous compassion, from feeding the millions of Europe after World War One, to saving thousands of Muslim refugees in Bosnia in the 1990s, we slip past what we once thought were the limits of that capacity. Now, thousands of Syrians ask for our help. We can test those limits again. All we must do is listen to the better angels of our nature, and while cloaked with compassion and equipped with courage, look beyond our own fears and reach towards what is right.