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The Dartmouth
May 23, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Magann: A Question of Humanity

America must support refugees.

I met a man named Abu Nabil in Jordan. He used to live in Amman, the country’s capital. Before moving there, he lived in Daraa, a city about 47 miles north of Amman. In Daraa, he studied at the university, obtained a law degree, married and started a family. But just under a century before, the victors of World War I had gathered together and drawn up new borders for the Middle East. One of those lines, the one demarcating Jordan and Syria, passed through the fields four miles west of Daraa. That put Daraa in Syrian territory.

In 2011, the people of Daraa had enough. The Arab Spring protests swept through the Middle East and brought down dictators. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad was on edge. And when a few children from Daraa wrote anti-regime graffiti on a wall, Assad’s forces captured and tortured them. The people of Daraa took to the streets in protest — they were met with gunfire.

The violence in Daraa sparked outrage across Syria. Fed up with the regime and burdened by drought and poverty, people around the country soon rose up in mass demonstrations against Assad. The government responded with brutal crackdowns, and the situation quickly devolved into civil war.

In the midst of this lived Abu Nabil and his family. They were no lovers of the regime, but they lived a relatively well-off life in Daraa. Then government forces started bombing their neighborhood. Fearing for their lives, one of Abu Nabil’s sons fled to Lebanon, another to Turkey and then to Germany. Then Abu Nabil’s young daughter fell gravely ill. Daraa was a war zone, and adequate medical care wasn’t available. So one night, Abu Nabil, his wife and his sick daughter packed up what they could and ran for four miles through the battlefield across the border into Jordan.

In Amman, Abu Nabil found a place to stay. His daughter received medical treatment, and his family no longer lived in fear of the bombings — though that experience never truly goes away. The limited availability of work permits in Jordan and other legal restrictions have prevented Syrian refugees from working anything more than menial jobs. Abu Nabil therefore spent his days volunteering at a community center run by a non-governmental organization that helps refugees adapt to life in Jordan. I met dozens of Syrians in Amman, people who had fled war carrying memories of horrific loss and violence. To survive would be enough. The audacity of people like Abu Nabil, who give back to others even in times of dire need, is both scarcely believable and intensely admirable.

Just a few weeks ago, Abu Nabil, his wife and his daughter left Jordan for the United Kingdom. They had received an offer of resettlement and a chance to rebuild their lives.

In debates about Syrian refugees in America, we don’t hear enough about families and courage. We hear that Syrians present such a threat that we need to shut them out entirely. That is the policy of our current administration, and it is a detestable one. People like Abu Nabil, by international law and by moral right, deserve a place in our nation. To deny that is inhuman. But when popular rhetoric dehumanizes refugees, we start to imagine them as terrorists and security threats. That’s why I chose to tell Abu Nabil’s story. I hope it humanizes the issue. Accepting refugees is not a question of security but a question of humanity.

I’m a descendant of refugees. Many of my ancestors fled starvation in British-occupied Ireland, moving to America out of desperation and necessity. And just like the narrative we see today, some Americans refused to recognize those refugees’ humanity. The Know-Nothing Party tried to bar entry to the mostly-Catholic victims of the Great Famine; after all, they argued, Catholics’ allegiance to the Pope threatened American democracy. Swap out Syrian Muslims for Irish Catholics and terrorism for Catholic conspiracies, and that 19th-century xenophobia sounds shockingly modern.

Of course, the Irish did not destroy the United States. They integrated into the national fabric and enriched the American nation. I see no reason why Syrian refugees won’t do the same. The same misguided nativism that drove the Know-Nothings motivates today’s supporters of the “travel ban.” Of course, we need to protect national security. But turning away refugees does not accomplish that. Far from threatening our security, people like Abu Nabil provide exactly what this country needs. If our nation closes its doors to refugees, we do not only betray American values. We betray our human decency.