Unpacking and teaching about the Syrian refugees

By: Rachel Cain – News Editor and Amanda Dee – Online Editor-in-Chief

The University of Dayton’s 13-member human rights studies senior cohort will present “The Syrian Refugee Crisis: Finding Our Humanity Amidst Fear” teach-in from 12 to 6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 9 in KU Torch Lounge.

The teach-in session titles rhyme with “fear,” with each one addressing a dimension of the U.S. role and reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis: Clear, Peers, Fear, Here and Steer. The event is co-sponsored by the city’s Welcome Dayton initiative, the Human Rights Studies Program and other UD departments.

“As students living in a community with refugees and immigrants, we should be informed before we have our opinions and are speaking out about them,” Maggie Maloney, a member of the senior cohort, said.

No prior knowledge about the issue is required to attend, “just an open mind,” Natalie Hudson, director of the Human Rights Studies Program, said in a phone interview.

She explained that this issue should be important to the average student because “refugees are resettled in the United States all the time—this isn’t new. It’s affecting their communities.”

After President Obama declared the U.S. would be accepting at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016, the House responded by passing a bill to limit that number.

In a Nov. 23-Dec. 8 Flyer News poll, 51 participants responded to the U.S. House bill limiting Syrian refugees in the U.S. in a near 50/50 split. Forty-five percent of participants support the bill, 43 percent oppose it, 6 percent don’t know enough to say and 6 percent feel neutral about the action.


“The goal of the teach-in is to correct misinformation presented by the media and presidential candidates,” senior cohort member Caleb Williamson said.

As an example, Williamson said several presidential candidates have incorrectly claimed the United States is accepting refugees without the proper vetting process.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle have responded with this sentiment, but Republican presidential candidates have drawn in the most media attention.

According to The New York Times, presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio said, “The problem is, we can’t background-check them. You can’t pick up the phone and call Syria, and that’s one of the reasons why I’ve said we won’t be able to take more refugees.”

Presidential candidate Gov. Chris Christie said, “I don’t trust this administration to effectively vet the people that they’re asking us to take in. We need to put the safety and security of the American people first.”

And presidential candidate Carly Fiorina stated, “We cannot permit refugees to come into this country unless we can vet them—and we cannot.”

On the Democratic Party side of presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton stated, “I said we should go to 65 [thousand refugees], but only if we have as careful a screening and vetting process as we can imagine.”

“A lot of times, the presidential candidates have said that we’re accepting a lot of these Syrian refugees without the proper vetting process. That’s actually not true,” Williamson said. “It starts with the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees’ office, goes through the initial vetting process and from there, they’re assigned a host country. Depending on who they’re assigned with, there are multiple offices that work with them, including FBI background checks and interviews with the Department of Homeland Security.”

Hudson said she hopes students gain information from the teach-in that’s “not just media soundbites,” which she said “create fear and are inauthentic.”

“It can be really easy to read something online that can scare you,” Williamson said, citing the “false correlation between refugees and ISIS.”

“There’s so much confusion—and fear that’s created out of confusion,” explained senior human rights studies cohort member Maggie Maloney. “It’s just a manipulation of the reality.”

Students planning the teach-in hope the event can help reverse this fear created by certain members in the media and politics.

“We’re trying to reverse the thought process of viewing these refugees as terrorist threats,” Williamson said. “Mainly, we’re humanizing them.”

We’re trying to reverse the thought process of viewing these refugees as terrorist threats. Mainly, we’re humanizing them.



Since Syria’s civil war began in 2011, approximately 4 million people, a little less than a fifth of the country’s population, have sought refuge in other countries, according to the BBC. An additional 7.6 million Syrians have been internally displaced within the country itself.

“They’re victims of a civil war they had no desire to start,” Williamson said.

The armed conflict began with pro-democracy protests in the southern city of Deraa in March 2011, which then spurred further protests around the country calling for President Bashar al-Assad to resign.

Violence, however, continued to escalate and the country is still embroiled in a deadly civil war.

The complexities of the civil war go beyond opposition to the president. It has developed into sectarian conflict between the country’s Sunni majority against the president’s Shia Alawite sect, according to the BBC.

Now part of the war, ISIS has gained control of large amounts of territory in northern and eastern Syria.

Many refugees are fleeing the country due to the extremism and violence incurred by the terrorist organization.

A U.S. coalition responded to the presence and influence of ISIS in the area by launching airstrikes in the country, September 2014.

The U.N. has reported instances of human rights violations, including murder, torture and rape committed by all sides of the conflict.

By June 2013, the U.N. reported 90,000 people were killed in the conflict. By August 2015, that number rose to 250,000.

Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, all of which neighbor Syria, shelter 3.6 million Syrian refugees between them, according to Time.

For many refugees, the journey to another country can be perilous. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated 2,500 refugees died en route during the summer of 2015 alone.


In the 1951 Refugee Convention, members of the UNHCR define a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

The UNHCR established the refugee registration process and determines whether or not the applicant will receive refugee status. This official U.N. registration process includes an interview with the applicant and a justification of the applicant’s reason for seeking refuge. Then, the UNHCR members will evaluate the criteria to decide which host state, the state the refugee will move to, is appropriate.

A Department of State official explained some U.S. embassies and some NGOs can also refer cases to host states, but approximately 75 percent of U.S. cases come directly from the UNHCR.

The entire process is explained over 325 pages.

If after this process, the UNHCR selects the U.S. as the best host country based on the participant’s situation in their home country, the applicant must go through the U.S. registration through the Resettlement Support Center—under the Department of State.

A Department of State senior administrative official explained the RSC process in a teleconference: “The safeguards that are used include biometrics, or fingerprint and biographic checks, and a lengthy in-person overseas interview that is carried out by specially trained DHS – Department of Homeland Security – officers, who scrutinize the applicant’s explanation of individual circumstances to ensure the applicant is a bona fide refugee and is not known to present security concerns to the United States.”

The processing time depends on the individual case. For instance, if a refugee’s family is already in the U.S., the process for that family member might be truncated. But the Department of State estimates this process to take 18-24 months.

According to The New York Times, 1,854 Syrian refugees successfully underwent this process from 2012 to September 2015. During that same time period, 92,991 Syrian refugees were admitted into Germany.


In Ohio, the controversy surrounding the acceptance of Syrian refugees comes to a crossroads between state and local government leaders.

Like more than half of U.S. governors, Gov. John Kasich opposes the acceptance of refugees into the state–while Mayor Nan Whaley has stated the city supports refugees if President Obama’s administration calls for it.

In September, Whaley convened with mayors from Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and 14 other U.S. cities, which resulted in a letter to the president saying “yes” to refugees.

“Mayor Nan Whaley is supporting refugees coming: We wanted to take similar action in a similar way to be supportive of open doors and open hearts,” Maloney said.

“This is something we always ask ourselves: ‘Why should people care?’” Maloney said. “You watch the news and the world is literally falling apart. It’s a mess out there. By being involved in the small way of showing up and listening and taking part in this, for me personally, it’s about having a sense of stability in a really crazy world.”

You watch the news and the world is literally falling apart. It’s a mess out there. By being involved in the small way of showing up and listening and taking part in this, for me personally, it’s about having a sense of stability in a really crazy world.

“We hope that our peers at the University of Dayton really do find this issue as important and pertinent to the history of the world,” Williamson said. “We can look back on this years from now and say, ‘Yeah, we helped solve this problem—this crisis—by starting step one: talking about it and having open dialogue.”

“The crisis isn’t just in Syria,” Hudson said. “It’s also about the international community and its ability to respond.”


– 12:20 – Unclear: The State of Syria and Our Role in the Refugee Process
– 1:25 – Peers: Untold Stories of Refugees
– 2:30 – Fear: Why are We Afraid of Refugees?
– 3:35 – Here: Dayton: Immigrant Friendly
– 5:05 – Steer: Education Can Move Us Forward

The teach-in will be held in KU’s Torch Lounge from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 9. Follow @FlyerNews for live coverage. Click here for a WYSO broadcast on climate change’s impact on the Syrian refugee crisis by UD professor Bob Brecha, Ph.D.

Featured image of Syrian refugee tents at Arbat Transit Camp in Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan, in March 2014 courtesy of Wikicommons. Map of the Middle East courtesy of Flickr’s Creative Commons.

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