The Promise of Liberty for the Refugees of Syria, and Beyond

In October of 1886, the Statue of Liberty (officially known as Liberty Enlightening the World) was dedicated. It has stood as a national monument and inspiration for many who sailed past her on their way to America. Many Americans are no doubt familiar with the words of poet Emma Lazarus inscribed on her plaque. The phrase is quoted often, and comes to mind as the world turns its attention to the Syrian refugee crisis. Its most famous passage reads:  

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" 

And indeed, the words on that plaque seem to have been written for today’s crisis. Over half the population of Syria has had to flee their homes. As the Islamic State seizes major swaths of territory and fights a brutal war with the regime of Bashar Al-Assad and various other rebel groups, there is little prospect of those displaced returning to their homes any time in the near future. 

And yet, the world remains frozen — barely able to comprehend the catastrophe, let alone react to it. But we cannot do nothing. The conflict has now gone on for four years and shows no signs of slowing. So, while it takes time to screen, process, and transport refugees to their new homes — the urgency and need has never been greater for the world to take bold steps and welcome those as promised in the sonnet on our very own Statue of Liberty. Fortunately, several good ideas have been put forward to respond to the crisis. 

On the ground, the idea of a safe zone in Syria has long been discussed, but should be now be moved to the forefront. Anne-Marie Slaughter has long advocated for such a solution to “defend Syrians within Syria.” This idea is certainly complicated and is not a panacea, but the establishment of a humanitarian corridor where Syrians can live without fear of barrel bombs should be vigorously pursued to help stem the tide of those making a most dangerous journey out of the country. 

For those who have already left Syria, a community response has been advocated by no less than Pope Francis himself. The Pope has called for every parish, religious community, monastery, and sanctuary to take in one refugee family. Of course, this is just one possible component of a community response. In today’s digital age, there are numerous ways to be supportive even if indirectly. The signs of support at German football games (and the ensuing hashtag #refugeeswelcome) are valuable and visible signals that can apply pressure and sometimes even change policy.  

The point remains that while governments certainly have a role, they cannot do it alone and need the support systems that can only be found at the local level. Even once a refugee family escapes Syria, their problems are far from over. Whether they come to rest in Germany, the United States, Lebanon or elsewhere, refugees are likely to end up in a country without a job or an immediate source of income, where they do not speak the language and where the culture will be unfamiliar to them. It is imperative that local populations in Europe and the United States not only support the presence of these refugees, but help them to integrate, mindful of the human connection we all share.  

And of course, government action is essential. President Obama has directed his administration to consider how to further scale up the U.S. response, but the recently announced goal of accepting at least 10,000 refugees is still far too small a number. The International Rescue Committee has called on the United States to accept closer to 65,000 — a benchmark that stems from the U.S. tradition of taking about half the world’s registered refugees who resettle in third countries. The UN aims to resettle 130,000 Syrian refugees in 2016.  There is a petition on the White House website to pledge to meet that goal of 65,000.  To date, it has received more than 76,000 signatures out of the 100,000 needed to elicit a response from the White House.  

If these numbers seem overwhelming, they should not. Turkey estimates that nearly 1.9 million Syrians have fled to its territory. Over a million Syrian refugees are believed to be in Lebanon and 600,000 are believed to be in Jordan. Germany has said it will likely take up to 800,000 asylum seekers. Surely the United States can find a way to resettle 65,000 refugees fleeing from one of the most horrific scenes of war and violence on the world stage today. 

There are many other ideas put forth by smart experts beyond these three. While there may be some risk in pursuing action on this crisis, we’ve already seen the great risk that comes with inaction in Syria. Remaining frozen and not taking some action to save lives inside and outside the country, does not mean that the conflict will remain static. It only means that the number of options available to the international community will dwindle, that the options that remain will become more complicated to implement, and that more lives with be threatened and lost.  

If the words emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty don’t serve as a mission statement for the United States, we could take note of one of the statue’s lesser known features. At the very base of the statue, where it is only visible if viewed above, is a broken chain wrapped around Lady Liberty’s feet. It is meant to symbolize her “free forward movement, enlightening the world with her torch free from oppression and servitude.” Likewise, the U.S. must move — must act — and continue to be the beacon that allows refugees to be free, safe, and to build a new life.  

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