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Issue Date:  September 1, 2006

The Statue of Liberty belongs in Syria

Mideast refugees find a home and haven in an unexpected place


We came back from 10 months in Damascus in mid-June and plan to return to Syria early in September. When we speak about Syria with small groups in homes or churches here these days, my wife always makes a suggestion: Let’s start a movement to tow the Statue of Liberty from the harbor in New York City to Syria’s Mediterranean seaport at Latakia. That’s where it belongs if there’s anything at all to this business about giving over “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.”

Just in these weeks we’ve been here in the United States, Syria has again been the only place of refuge for the Lebanese whose homes and jobs have been destroyed and whose lives have been endangered by Israel’s air strikes. Even though Israel bombed the roads and bridges that connect Beirut and Damascus, killing many, still hundreds of thousands of Lebanese have gotten to the border. Did Syria have a homeland security department there to decide who got in and who did not? Did the refugees pass through any metal detector? I would be surprised if anyone even asked them to put their meager baggage on an x-ray belt.

Instead they probably heard: “Ahlan ou sahalan!” You are welcome! It comes naturally to the lips of Syrians.

We have heard from friends in Damascus that public schools and other institutions are being used to house these refugees. We have heard that President Bashar al-Assad has asked households to open their doors and give sanctuary to the stranger. One U.S. journalist suggested this was a public relations move on Syria’s part. Some move. The United States should hire that PR firm.

Americans should know that Syrians are good at this work of receiving refugees. They have been practicing. If we go back a whole century, we’ll find that Armenians were taken in. In 1948 and the years following, tens of thousands of Palestinians fleeing Israel’s seizure of their homes and farms sought and received refuge in Syria. They and their children and their children’s children are still there, unable even to visit the land of their ancestors. The early Palestinian camps in Damascus are now neighborhoods of four- and five-story cinderblock apartments.

Then there are the Iraqis. As the U.S. occupation of Iraq grinds on through its fourth year, more than half a million Iraqis have fled to Syria and a like number to Jordan. Once again, Syria’s borders were open. Iraqi children can enroll in Syrian schools. Iraqis can seek work in an economy that already has much unemployment and underemployment. Refugees do what refugees always do: find their relatives, crowd into small apartments, find ways to earn enough for dinner.

Syria and Jordan, two nations never mentioned among the big oil owners of the Middle East, are the countries people go to for refuge. Jordan, a U.S. ally, has grown stricter about who gets in and sends some Iraqis back to Iraq. Syria has rules too, but the refugees seem to stay on.

So who are these people who have been doing what the tall lady in New York harbor used to do, opening that door? To start with, there are only about 18 million Syrians. So go figure how many refugees the United States would have to admit from Iraq to be in the same league as Syria. The number comes to about 8 million, or a quarter of Iraq’s population. But few of the refugees in Amman and in Damascus even bother to apply for a visa of any kind to the United States. They know the odds are overwhelmingly against their receiving even a nonimmigrant visa, let alone an immigrant visa.

But wait, what about Iraqis still in Iraq? Don’t they apply at the U.S. embassy there, now the largest embassy in the world we hear? No. Iraqis are not allowed to apply for U.S. visas in Iraq. They must make the dangerous journey to Amman or Damascus first. That in itself determines that only a fraction of the Iraqis who take the Statue of Liberty seriously ever get to apply for a U.S. visa.

And does the United States dare admit that Iraqis can be refugees at all? What would that say about our invasion and occupation of Iraq?

But Syria, a nation somewhere near the bottom of the middle of the heap -- a Syrian uses in an average day about one-eighth the energy allotted an American -- still holds the gates open for Iraqis and Lebanese. The United Nations gives some help too.

Americans today seem to have turned their back on the hospitality they used to offer. They could do worse than to turn to Syria for while a relatively poor country -- and certainly an imperfect one in many respects -- Syria does a powerful amount of good to refugees in desperate need.

Gabe Huck was for many years the director of Liturgy Training Publications. He and his wife are currently studying Arabic in Damascus.

National Catholic Reporter, September 1, 2006

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