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Syria’s global reach

As the Syrian Civil War grinds on in its sixth year and the Islamic State (IS) continues to expand its footprint of terror, the flood of refugees entering Europe has resumed without respite in 2016. The civil war, which has been called the greatest humanitarian crisis of our era by the United Nations (UN), has seen more than 250,000 Syrians killed and 6.5 million civilians displaced.

The plight of Syrians has generated calls for greater humanitarian aid from European political governments to be delivered to towns under siege in Syria, as well as to refugee camps in the Middle East and Europe. Additionally, it has stirred an urgency among Western leaders to address the war in Syria more actively, with a partial ceasefire currently in place and a round of peace talks currently happening. Last week, on March 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his decision to pull out Russian forces from Syria, after stating that he had achieved his main military objectives in the region.

The situation has also fueled widespread sentiments of fear and concern, as countries, including the U.K., prepare for potential acts of violence similar to those in Paris, France in November or in Brussels, Belgium earlier today.

For Social Studies Department Head Todd Pavel, the current crisis unfolding presents, above all, a moral dilemma for nations and governments globally. Torn between balancing the ongoing influx of refugees with the ever-increasing backlash from citizens and right-wing political institutions, countries face an unprecedented uphill challenge.

Pavel believes humanitarian sentiments and solidarity must, however, ultimately triumph over nationalism and radicalism to ensure a more integrated and harmonious immigration process. Rather than fear coming into contact with foreign cultures, citizens should view the refugee crisis as an opportunity to quell stereotypes about Islam and the Middle East. Learning about and tolerating other people’s traditions and points of view are the foremost pillars toward creating a more sustainable and nonviolent immigration process.

“It’s understandable that people are going to fear difference in some respects; they’re going to fear change,” Pavel said. “But it seems to me what should happen then is if someone presents me with an idea or tradition or practice that’s different from mine, my first reaction should not be to say that’s wrong because it’s different from my way of doing things. The first kind of reaction should be ‘so let me try to learn more about how you do things.’”

Pavel sees the current situation as an opportunity for humanity to make amends for similar past sins and show greater empathy and humility. “What’s really important though, from a historical perspective, is that we have plenty of examples in the last 200-300 years of persecuted peoples who need to find [a] place where they can call home. We’ve made plenty of mistakes in the past where we haven’t opened borders and widespread death has occurred.”

Sophie Clark’s (’16) exposure to the crisis unfolding in the Middle East and Europe – as a student in Contemporary and Global History – has been manifold. For her, listening to Rami Kablawi’s (’16) personal connection to the situation provided a stark narrative of how far-reaching and extensive the conflict in Syria has become since erupting in 2011. “The fact that this crisis is so large that even someone that I know has a relative who’s trying to get into Germany really struck home that these are real people, and that this is a really serious situation,” Clark said.

Despite the onerous demands refugees are placing on nations, Clark believes their safety takes precedence. “It’s really, really tragic and I’m very frustrated that these governments are so worried about their own internal security and the demand on their resources when these people are fleeing and have absolutely nothing,” she said.

She believes it imperative for European governments to better understand the severity of the situation and play a more central role in mitigating the death toll of refugees attempting the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea. Clark also believes a clear distinction must be made between Syrian refugees and migrants coming primarily from Kosovo, Albania and other regions experiencing economic turmoil.

“In an ideal world things should be on an equal playing field, but right now we’ve got such extenuating circumstances with this huge influx of refugees, people who have basically nothing to go back to,” she said. “Refugees should take precedence.”

Evan DaCosta (’16) agrees invariably with Clark, and believes that while economically motivated migrants should be given the opportunity to enhance their lives, refugees, whose lives are in direct danger, face a more pressing and life-threatening situation.

For DaCosta, the current refugee crisis particularly strikes home. Born into a Portuguese family, DaCosta’s father immigrated to the U.S. during the late 1960’s to flee Portugal’s fascist government led by Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar.

Though he sympathizes with the refugees currently stranded in camps and unable to reach Europe safely, DaCosta believes there must be a more well-defined and regulated immigration process. “My dad was an immigrant and that’s the way I look at [the refugee crisis]. So I think Europe and the United States should take refugees in, but at the same time there needs to be a vetting process.”

While DaCosta advocates for creating a more regimented system to ensure the identification of people entering the EU, he believes it subsequently remains the people’s choice to determine whether more refugees should be allowed into their nation. “I think ultimately it’s the people in that nation’s decision. Everyone seems to forget this, but [the] government’s responsibility is to its own people first, and so if the people want to take in refugees they should do that, that’s a very noble thing to do… I would like to see countries doing more but it’s not my place to say because I’m not living there,” he said.

Because of this, DaCosta sees the current conflict unfolding in Syria and its exposure to Europe as a double-edged sword. While it is incumbent upon the EU to play its role in alleviating the challenges the refugees are facing and ensure their safe voyage to Europe, DaCosta believes nations may do so at the expense of their own national security.  

While walking around the “Jungle” – the makeshift refugee camp in Calais – during December Break, Grade 7 Aide Sean Ross saw a maze of dirt roads, inter-spliced with tents and makeshift buildings. The refugee camp consists of tin roofed buildings, around 50 toilets and showers as well as biological toilets, mosques, churches and schools, and hosts around 5,000 refugees. “It’s turned into a little village. There are shops, people selling stuff, there’s a place with a generator so you can charge a mobile device,” Ross said.

The Jungle is split up into little communities, comprised predominantly of Syrian refugees who have all managed to cross into France. “Several had left family behind and they were trying to find somewhere where they could send money back,” Ross said. Additionally, a couple of the refugees already had family in European countries and were trying to reach them.

Ross travelled to the Jungle over Thanksgiving break, winter break and again during February break to drop off, organize, and distribute donations, as well as to meet and hear refugees’ stories. About half of the refugees Ross talked to told him they wanted to either stay in France or travel to Germany.

Although many of the world’s crises are far away and require a considerable amount of effort to create an impact, Ross felt that the immense wave of Syrian refugees entering neighboring countries, such as France, presented an opportunity to help out. “In this particular situation I can see what’s going on, I can read about it in the paper, I can reflect on it, I have discussions about it in school, at university, and then be near enough to go and do something about it,” Ross said.

However, the most important aspect for Ross is creating awareness. “Even though it’s only a small part, I think creating the awareness was more important than any actual donations,” Ross said.  

Ross hopes for this awareness to manifest itself through discussions and education within the school. “The discussions should definitely be happening so we can see how people feel about the political situation, the social implications, and where they stand in relation to what’s going on,” Ross said.

A lack of discussion and awareness often results in sweeping generalizations being made. Refugees entering Europe continue to be labelled as radical Islamists attempting to undermine long-standing democratic structures and spread terror. Pavel believes such blatant categorizing achieves little long-term, and only serves to exacerbate tensions between governments and their peoples.

“It makes [refugees’] situation even worse. They’re trying to leave a place where they’re not welcome to go to a place where they believe they can start anew and be accepted as a fellow human being rather than being categorized as ‘because you believe in a certain faith system or because you come from a certain part of the world, we immediately are going to make all these assumptions about you’…I think that does a great injustice to the diversity of faith and the diversity that exists in the Middle East,” Pavel said.

Delving into the many causes and repercussions of the war is something Ross thinks is imperative to fully understanding the situation, but is something that isn’t currently happening. “I think there needs to be more conversations like this, whether it’s about the Syrian conflict or another one, about the social implications of war, the social implications of bombing a country, how it affects the people that are there, how it affects the neighboring countries, the economic advantages that countries gain after going into a country, or creating unrest in a country,” Ross said.

However, Ross believes the media impedes discussion. “The media allows the public to believe that these decisions are OK by picking and choosing the bits that will get them the most support or reflect what will sell the most papers,” Ross said. “I think that’s one of the biggest parts of it. Unfortunately, I think for the most part, people don’t see through it.”

Through creating honest and factual discussion, Ross hopes to help students collect all the information, and then create an environment where they can form their own opinion. “I think people just need to be more aware and they need to be given the information clearly and honestly,” Ross said. “A lot of the students here, and the teachers to a certain extent, are very, and going to be very, influential people. And if we can’t educate them to think about things with a more clear lens than a biased lens, then I don’t think we’re doing our job properly.”

As a whole, Ross does not believe that the school has provided students with a place to discuss and debate contentious topics. “There doesn’t seem to be people willing to ask those questions or make the statements that might upset people, and I think the best way often to get people to really think about how they really feel is to put them in an uncomfortable situation or give them an uncomfortable question,” Ross said.

While Pavel does believe sufficient conversation is happening within departmental classes in the high school, there needs to be more organized, cross-curricular conversations to increase awareness about the crisis.

“We could possibly do a better job of coordinating something across departments, where we’re actually giving students the chance in many classes to grapple with this important issue that is really going to continue to affect discourse in the U.K. and on the continent for months, if not years, to come,” he said.

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