Syrian Refugees: The Myth and Reality

By Ehap Al-Ahmead

Present political and social debate on Syrian and Arab refugees and immigrants is centered on perceptions that women and men from this region are a threat to national security, an undesirable group for fulfilling jobs in the American workforce, and unwanted in American neighborhoods. Debate of Syrian and Arab  refugees and immigrants has focused on stoking irrational fears about the region and inhabitants and has not been coupled with systematic thinking about the pros and cons of when, how, and under what circumstances American policy should accept refugees. In this essay, I advocate for a form policy thinking that focuses on durable, strategic, and long-term solutions on refugee policy that serves American interest in the long-term rather than focused on immediate political jockeying.

Learn More about how Syrian Immigrants in the United States are not a new phenomenon:

The theoretical archetype that best applies to social policy that could surmount American public resistance to Syrian refugees is the Goal Achievement Theory.  This theory can be used when precedent of other cases or social policy does not exist and provides a framework to bridge the gap between the real and desired situations. The goal achievement theory is based on three strategies (a) identify the problems required to take corrective action, where these corrections must respond to the main causes of the problem rather than symptoms. (D) Be persistent and give enough time to see progress; social problems are complicated in nature thus progress to the solution is usually gradual and slow.  However, this does not mean the solution is not working  it might only need some more time.  (c) If progress is not achieved (even after time delay), understand the reasons for the shortfall and rethink the challenges; in this case after giving a “fair” time to test the solution, we can judge its effectiveness and think about another strategic direction for intervention if the current solutions are not working.

In the case of American rejection for Syrian refugees, International NGOs want the American government to be more tolerable toward refugees so the United States can participate in the international efforts to help them alleviate the crisis. By contrast the current situation is a substantial American public resistance to refugees for several reasons. First of all, there is an increase in Islamophobia among Americans specifically occurring after 9/11, which formulates the background for what Americans think and feel about Muslims. This is also fueled by the media’s persistent representation of Muslims as terrorists and undesirables. This view of Muslims has been strengthening even more after incidents of terrorism in France. In the days after the attacks in France, the governors of thirty-one states declared that Syrian refugees are not welcomed in their states; some of them have slogan for “security first.” The following map shows these states in dark orange.



In addition to the security concerns and irrational fears, one of the reasons for Americans being unwelcoming to Syrian refuges is the rise of Alt-Right ideology in the political discussion, which was largely adopted by President Trump in his 2016 campaign. Proponents of this ideology are openly hostile to America’s involvement in global affairs and intensely focused on blocking intervention in the name of American interests – using racial and nationalistic undertones.  Finally, public opinion and the political discussion is partially centered on perceptions that immigrants and refugees take away the Americans jobs. For instance, several times during his campaign, President Trump warned that the immigrants and refugees resettlement programs will “take Americans jobs” and promised they will be abandoned if elected.

Having these problems in mind, I suggest the following solutions: (a) awareness campaigns to correct erroneous public beliefs about Muslims and links to terrorism, and also communication workshops involving Syrian refugees and members of hosting communities that help build trust and eliminate misunderstanding.

These workshops should also help to correct the faulty perception about Syrian refugees as economical threat. VivekWadhwa (2012) reaches a clear conclusion based on his studies. He says that “immigrants have become a significant driving force in the creation of new businesses and intellectual property in the U.S.—and that their contributions have increased over the past decade.” Thus, Syrian refugees as consumers and producers are helping to create new businesses.  In some states like New Hampshire they are compensating for the shortage in non-immigrant factory workers.

To respond to American security concerns about Syrian Refugees, a more rigorous background investigation should take place. Although this investigation is already done through United Nations agencies and then rechecked by the American authorities, strengthening it and explaining its reliability to the public can help alleviate irrational security fears.  It must be clear for the American elite and the public as well that they are benefited by accepting the Syrian refugees rather than rejecting them. Americans should know that “Closing the Syrian resettlement program… would certainly hand ISIS a propaganda victory.” It would also increase the risk of Syrians—trapped in refugee camps without any solution to exile in sight—becoming radicalized; the following diagram shows how the problem’s causes and solutions interact:


To overcome the public resistance for Syrian refugees NGOs might need to change the culture that fuels it. Cultural change is not an easy mission. Thus, the efforts to fix this problem will be hard and time consuming. In addition to that, some political parties benefit by atmospheres of fear and bigotry so they will not easily accept the move toward a more tolerant society, and this issue complicates the problem. Having this in mind, the suggested solutions should have enough time to be tested; however, if no important results appear even after “fair time” delay, we should re-question our assumption that the public resistance is motivated by internal American conditions. For example, maybe the Syrian refugees themselves participate in this resistance by not showing enough readiness to accept or at least respect the American main stream values, or exert some efforts for assimilation or co-existence. Such possibilities must be addressed if the current assumption does not seem to be working.


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