“Syrian refugees” has become a ubiquitous term. The faces of Syrians, young and old, are plastered across the news. Their acceptance into the United States has become a hot issue of debate among politicians. Yet, as often as the media likes to discuss Syrians, it is utterly astounding how clueless and complicit we as a nation are in response to all of the events in Syria. From the ongoing civil war to the refugee crisis at hand, there is no excuse for ignorance. The greatest proof of our negligence comes from our nation’s politicians: comments from Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson as well as Donald Trump Jr. have both showcased widespread, regrettable ignorance and prejudice. With the creation and popularity of campus clubs like Students Teach for Syria, our own campus is now better suited than ever to move past the unfortunate and often racist rhetoric of the mainstream and conservative media and look toward a path of empathy, collaboration and problem-solving.
After terrorist attacks shook much of the West up this past year, and with violence reigning across Europe, the immediate response was to withdraw support for refugee intake. Assigning the blame to Syrians and scapegoating them as the reason for our problems became the new norm. Given the vast amount of Islamophobia that has been born post-9/11, with the combination of preconceived Orientalist notions, blaming this group — the majority of whom are Arab and adherents of Islam — adds up. And turning back on a group that has already been so easily labeled as “other,” eases the conscience of those refusing to help, learn or care about Syria.
In the past, the same has gone for our own campus. The Undergrduate Student Government Senate did not pass the Syrian Consortium Bill, which would allow Syrian undergraduate students to acquire seats at USC for higher education, due to the fact that it would be disrespectful in light of the events in Paris (according to then-Senator Jacob Ellenhorn). Even figures of power, such as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his son, Donald Trump Jr., have tapped into this plethora of ignorance and have framed it into a weapon of fear, claiming that Syrians are enactors of violence rather than recognizing the reality of the situation — that Syrians are the victims of extreme violence, who are fleeing in pursuit of a better life.
What many fail to realize is that Syria was and is not as they perceive it to be; organizations like Students Teach for Syria help to quell this sort of misinformation. When thinking about the Middle East, the common stereotypes that are affiliated with it are oppression, barbarianism, and authoritarianism. However, Syria was a medium-income country, and its people enjoyed a vast amount of liberties, not the Orientalist ideas of Syria as a home country for violence.
Orientalism, a concept by philosopher Edward Said, accuses the West of painting an image of the Arab world; a barbaric homeplace for a violent, uncivilized people, yet at the same time are exotic, mysterious victims of this timelessness culture. But Damascus and Aleppo were far from uncivilized and violent; they were cultural centers, breeding a plethora of intellectuals, and the damage to these cities is a tragedy to the world. What once was a beautiful place is now a pile of rubble, a home destroyed to the chagrin of its people. And as many whine about the burden of accepting refugees, most have not had the experiences as many of these refugees have had; having escaped a war while having family still stuck in war-torn areas, having families divided, crossing treacherous routes and undergoing perilous journeys en route to a country whose governments have painted them as the enemy.
As a result of xenophobia, they have become victims of robbery and rape and, finally, even when being granted asylum, they face the struggles of learning a new language and the heartbreaking desires to return back home to their once-beloved Syria.
Syrians are not burdens, but rather people who have lost so much in a short span of time and who are in temporary need of refuge. They are not terrorists. They are not barbaric humans from the timeless and mystical east. They are not Skittles. And for the past six years, knowledge about the war in Syria has been minimal. It is in the hands of the students, of the youth, of the people, to start learning about Syria by way of its culture, of the war, of the language, of anything to welcome our new Americans. This can start on our campus, with our student body. The transparency of ignorance on Johnson’s face was catalyst enough to prove how much change is needed to better expand our world views and to learn more about Syrians.