“There’s a perception around the world, that Arabs or Muslims are terrorists. That we want blood. Have we given you this impression?” Emad pointedly asked me as we sat together in my tent in Za’atari refugee camp. Without pause, his friend quickly added, “Most of the people here are Muslims, are we like what you see in the media?”
It was my last day in Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, home to 85,000 Syrians. For 30 days in 2014, two fellow filmmakers and I were allowed by the UN to register as refugees and to set up a tent in the camp. Our goal was not to simulate the life of a refugee, but to create a space where we could have a dialogue with our Syrian neighbors and truly listen to one another.
The experience and our resulting documentary on Netflix have led us to dedicate the past two years to speaking with people about refugee issues on Capitol Hill, at the United Nations, and on CBS, among many other places.
On Friday, as the U.S. announced an executive order to suspend all refugee resettlement programs for 120 days and to indefinitely prevent any Syrian refugees from entering the country (unless a part of a religious minority, ie. Christian or Yazidi), my stomach dropped as I reflected on Emad’s comment. I understood why he thought the media portrayed him as a terrorist. The new policy bans anyone from seven majority Muslim countries (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen) from entering the U.S. for 90 days, with room to add more countries, according to Reince Priebus, White House Chief of Staff. The ban also applies to those with dual citizenship with a country other than the U.S. Initially it applied to green card holders, though that was quickly reversed.
First, to immediately address some pushback I’ve seen: Yes, this issue is very complicated. It’s important to read multiple credible sources and the executive order text before jumping to conclusions. Yes, Obama did restrict short-term waivers (travel under 30 days) from these same seven countries, but it was not a visa ban, it merely meant that individuals from those countries would need a visa. Yes, Obama’s resettlement numbers were also low between 2011 and 2014, in part because, until his executive order in 2015, efforts to increase the number of refugees had been blocked repeatedly by the Republican congress. With that said, I too wish he had done more. This executive order thankfully falls short of the travel ban on all Muslims that President Trump promised on the campaign trail, but nonetheless, the message is sounding loud and clear around the world: The U.S. government is proving itself willing to sanction discrimination along religious lines.
Now, let me reiterate that this observation is not an attack on our country, nor the values it stands for. I’m proud that, since 1975, we have welcomed more refugees than any other western country. I am also not proposing that refugees are more worthy of support than our veterans or homeless. This is not a zero-sum game.
The current administration, in both the executive order and follow-up press releases, has cited security concerns as the primary motive for these changes. People are scared, and I understand that. Providing safety from extremist groups is fundamentally important.
The question is, what policies will actually make the U.S., and the world, safer?
Emad and our other Syrian friends in the camp can’t understand why refugees have been falsely equated with extremism. Not one Syrian refugee has committed a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. No Syrian was involved in the tragic 2015 Paris attacks or the March 2016 Brussels attack. In fact, according to a new study by the Cato Institute, the likelihood of being killed by a refugee in the U.S. is one in 3.64 billion. At the over 350 film screenings and talks we’ve held, I’ve been fortunate to meet countless individuals who genuinely want to help Syrian refugees, but they fear violent extremists will infiltrate the U.S. as refugees. Their fear is misplaced.
The refugee resettlement program is by far the most difficult and time-consuming way through which to enter the U.S. You can read about the full process in the NY Times, or watch this short video from Homeland Security. It takes an average of at least two years of careful vetting, and already has additional layers of background checks for refugees from Syria. To date, the system has been able to constantly evolve and improve, without needing to “suspend” all life-saving operations.
The current executive order not only risks the lives of tens of thousands of refugees, but it undermines our moral legitimacy in the eyes of the world, and provides perhaps the best possible recruitment propaganda to the extremist groups we’re trying to protect from. The world is listening. Refugees are listening. These are not isolated populations . Syrian children, like my 12-year-old friend Raouf from Za’atari camp, are being told that they’re violent, unwanted and potential terrorists. Now add in the reality of their pasts. Raouf, for example, experienced his school being bombed back in Syria and has celebrated three birthdays inside the confines of a 1.5 x 3 mile refugee camp. He and children like him need support and stability. But on average refugees will be displaced for 17 years, often with limited opportunities to heal or learn.
If they become a lost generation, they will be ripe for exploitation by groups like ISIS, which try to take advantage of situations of hopelessness, ignorance, and trauma, brainwashing or even paying for individuals to join their growing network. This risk reaffirms why it’s so urgently important to support and welcome refugees. Syrians, especially Raouf’s generation, will rebuild and provide stability to their country — no military action can do that.
Um Ali, our neighbor in the camp, is not a helpless bystander. She’s a teacher, grandmother, and artist who picks up trash around the refugee camp and turns it into gorgeous weavings.
Ghassem, the most endlessly positive Syrian I’ve met, can contribute to whatever country he’s in. He’s a father, women’s rights advocate, and aid worker. Along with his wife and three kids, he’s in process to be resettled to Canada. A process that hopefully won’t be paused.
Maintaining our support for refugees and unabashedly demonstrating love for our Muslim brothers and sisters is not only be the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do for global stability and security. We cannot naively pursue isolationist, xenophobic, and discriminatory policies and assume that this will not fuel the narrative around the world that America is at war with Islam. Groups like ISIS, who have proven themselves sophisticated in their global recruitment, can use this narrative to potentially brainwash vulnerable populations. Claiming they are the victims of western oppression. Already, reports on Sunday are suggesting that pro-ISIS social media accounts are celebrating the president’s ban, claiming it’s proof, as one commenter put it, that the “West would eventually turn against its Muslim citizens.” Moreover, this narrative could even lead to domestic pressure on majority-Muslim allies of the U.S., to sever their cooperation with American counterterrorism and intelligence sharing programs, leaving us more vulnerable. (For a more in depth look at ISIS recruitment, read the Atlantic piece “What ISIS Really Wants.”)
Like most Americans, I had never been to the Middle East (apart from long layovers). I had never met anyone from Syria until I travelled to Za’atari refugee camp. I realize it’s easy for us to fear what we don’t know. Thankfully many have been speaking up for civil rights and engaging like never before. These small actions matter. Your actions matter.
If you’d like to meet several selfless and courageous Syrian refugees, and see that what unites us is far greater than what divides us, I encourage you to watch our documentary Salam Neighbor on Netflix.