Coppola: A Plea for Syrian Refugees

Fear of terrorism should not blind us to the suffering of Syrian refugees.

by Cristoforo Coppola | 9/22/16 12:30am

On Sunday morning we woke up to the news of another terrorist attack. After the terrorist attacks in Paris, France, San Bernardino, California and Orlando, Florida, those in Nice, France, New York and Minnesota now seem to have been the targets of radical Islamic terrorism.

It is important not to ignore the timing of these attacks. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama hosted a major United Nations summit on the refugee crisis. This problematic coincidence makes the task that the president faces ­— to increase efforts in helping and accepting more refugees ­­— even harder than it initially was. Never mind that the man captured by the police in New York was a United States citizen. Never mind that Syrian refugees were not involved in any of the recent attacks on U.S. soil. There will still be those ready to argue that, by stopping refugees from entering our countries, the problem of terrorism will subside.

This concept is not only wrong but dangerous. Refusing to help millions of people that flee war, hunger and torture goes against what the United States of America ­— a country among the founders of the Declaration of Human Rights­ — stands for. As the DHR reads, “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”

The Declaration of Human Rights was written just after World War II, the last time the world saw a scale of mass migration smilar to today’s. When the Jews fled occupied Europe to find shelter in the U.S., people feared that Nazi spies could be smuggled in across the Atlantic, just as people now fear the arrival of terrorists. At that time, however, the U.S. responded courageously and, by the end of the war, had accepted more than 650,000 refugees. On the other hand, in handling the Syrian crisis, the current administration has admitted only 6,726 Syrian refugees as of July 2016. But it wasn’t just after World War II that the U.S. acted decisively to defend those most in need: according to the Pew Research Center, more than 3 million refugees have resettled in the U.S. since 1975.

These numbers say a lot about the character of this country. Has the U.S. not always been the refuge of those being persecuted? Is American society not the result of the numerous waves of migration that almost always occurred because of war and poverty? Just by looking around our campus, you realize that the U.S. is built on families that, just like the Syrian ones now, were at some point fleeing misery and injustice. So why aren’t we listening to the desperate voices of Syrian refugees?

It seems that the threat of terrorism has made countries reluctant to act. Yet we often ignore how difficult it is for terrorists to infiltrate both Europe and the U.S. In the U.S., intensive and highly efficient screening processes take between 18 and 24 months. In Europe, the two main gateways, Italy and Greece, are unreliable sources for ISIS fighters. The first has an overseas crossing that is dangerous and costly, while the second is far away from the main block of European countries, and travel across borders still adds considerable, unnecessary obstacles to their mission. It is therefore no coincidence that, in all cases except one in Germany, European Union and U.S. citizens carried out all of the attacks.

To considerably reduce the threat of terrorism — one that cannot entirely vanish in the short term — we ought to invest in education and fight radicalism of all forms at home instead of denigrating the other as the source of all evil. This mindset is the same as that of the so-called “Islamic State” and does not belong in a civilized society.

Of course, to decide whether the threat of terrorism outweighs the need to help millions of lives is not easy — but countries must have the courage to act and not let fear drive policymaking. The Syrian civil war has shattered the lives of millions of regular people; as Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, said at the UN Summit on Tuesday, the Syrian middle class has disappeared: doctors, lawyers, teachers and professionals of all sorts now live in refugee camps in miserable conditions.

Most importantly, there are hundreds of thousands of children that could potentially become a lost generation; many are orphans without school and, thus, have few prospects for the future. Think of Alan Kurdi, the three-year old boy found dead on a beach near Bodrum, Turkey. Think of Omran Daqneesh, the five-year old boy who sat, covered in dust and blood, in an ambulance after being saved from an airstrike. Think of them and the millions of others that have been denied “the right to live in freedom and safety,” as the DHR demands. Only then, when we are conscious of the consequences of our decisions, will we be able to build walls, shut our doors and pretend as if the world outside does not concern us.