I had never really thought about the word research until I was working on this post. If you take the prefix literally, you are searching again. I don’t know if that’s fitting for most research, but my research on Syria and the ongoing civil war is definitely searching again. I didn’t have much of an idea of what led up to the current situation in Syria before this trip though I had done some research. Now, after talking with some Syrian refugees, this re-search makes a bit more sense. There is so much about the Syrian Civil War that is difficult to comprehend. Here’s my attempt to convey my basic understanding of the situation in Syria.

How did we get here?

Bashar al-Assad, his regime, and some graffiti artists. Assad has been Syria’s president since July 2000, though his role would not accurately be described as president. The only way was Assad’s way: his political party became the only political party, and individual rights and freedoms were limited. In March 2011, a group of students was arrested for political graffiti. The regime responds to protests, resulting in dozens of deaths. Those events set things in motion: Syrians continued to protest unjust treatment, and unfortunately the regime continued to behave in the same ways.

Refugees at a UN site

How long has this been going on?

Most agree the Syrian Civil War started in 2011, when the first notable amount of refugees started to arrive in bordering countries, as represented in this visual. More specifically, this is marked in April of 2011 with over 5,000 refugees arriving in Lebanon. The timeline below includes a few areas of interest I found, which are compiled from two far more comprehensive timelines. The first timeline breaks up the information in a very user-friendly way, and is focused on refugee statistics. CNN’s timeline is more up to date and provides a more thorough overall picture of what has been happening in Syria contributing to the large refugee population.

What’s some more specific information about refugees?

First, it’s important to note that not everyone we might think of as a refugee is considered that by the UN or the country they are in. As any policy has to draw the line somewhere, here are the differences between a refugee and other designations, even if they are fleeing the same situation.

What that means is that data compiled by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) about refugees includes those with that technical classification, not asylum seekers and displaced persons.

UNHCR population statistics

How has the world responded?

There hasn’t been one response to Syria’s refugees; country by country can vary incredibly. Even within the EU, where some expected united action, responses have been quite different. Germany has taken in over a million refugees since 2015, Denmark received less than 3,000 from 2010-2014, Hungary built a border fence, etc.

I was curious to see of the countries that were being praised for their acceptance rates and those admitting few, how did their refugee population compare percentage-wise to their country’s population? I looked at only a handful of countries based on what I had heard about their refugee population and whether they were close to Syria. The results shocked me.


Country 2016 Population 2016 Refugee Population Accepted (source: AIED) % of Refugees in Total Population
USA 324.1 million 84,995 (World Atlas) (number of applications unknown .026%
Germany 82.8 million (Federal Statistical Office) 433,920 (58.2% acceptance rate) .52%
France 64.67 million 29,140 (34.18% acceptance rate) .045%
UK 65.1 million 7,325 (23.94% acceptance rate) .011%
Canada 36.3 million 46,700 (66.1% acceptance rate) .1287%
Greece 10.89 million 2,711 (5.3% acceptance rate) .025%


I found the percentage of refugees in the nation’s population to be particularly insightful, but I believe they speak for themselves. Greece’s acceptance rate may seem unacceptable, but can be attributed to the fact that Greece is the country receiving most of the people crossing the Mediterranean. They may not be providing a place to stay for refugees, but they operate many refugee camps and other places Syrians can wait until another country (typically in the EU) accepts their asylum application.

Is there anything I can do?

I was surprised to learn during and after this trip that the answer was yes. If your country is not taking in many refugees, it can feel like there’s nothing really meaningful you can do. Though it’s unfortunate and honestly frustrating that we aren’t helping out as a country by taking in more refugees, there is a lot we can do as individuals.

Displaced people flee toward the Syrian border

One of my biggest concerns, returning from this trip, is the lack of awareness we have toward what’s happening in Syria and with those refugees who are trying to resettle in countries around the world. An active way to feel ourselves make a difference, is to have the difficult conversations with people who might not agree with us, or might just not seem to care. I’ll be up front with you, it sucks doing that. It feels pointless; there’s no way anything you say can change their mind. However, I’m starting to think it’s not all about changing their mind, but opening their mind to change. If you’ve read some of my other posts, you noticed that I’m worried about the subtle side of Islamophobia in America. The Islamophobia that is our automatic anxiety regarding someone who seems like they might be Muslim. If we approach these anxieties one conversation at a time, maybe they can be chipped away. Maybe then, if we have an administration ready to accept more refugees, the population will be ready to. Or if the administration isn’t ready, maybe the population’s readiness will help push them forward, similar to what we saw with the legalization of same-sex marriage. Yes, having these conversations is difficult, but just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. We’d never further ourselves as a society if that’s the attitude we had. And hey, one way to make the conversation a little easier is to have a middleman (my shameless plug for you to share this blog).

International Rescue Committee

Of course there are other ways to make change outside of dialogue, one of which is through the organizations trying to help in Syria and the surrounding countries. An organization I like is the International Rescue Committee. They have really unique ways that your involvement can make a difference. You can be very specific, such as helping to create a classroom for displaced children who have no access to education, a kit for newborns, an emergency toilet where otherwise there would be none available, and so much more. This UNHCR page has a comprehensive list of everyone who partners with them in different areas of need. Click on the area you might be interested in helping with and see every organization that works with the UNHCR in that aspect. Even though many of these seek monetary donations, your money isn’t going to some abstract cause hoping to stop the refugee crisis. It’s going to things that can help right now, some of which (depending on the organization) you can donate in place of money. Something to consider, if you’re interested.

Children at Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan

Syria and the U.S.

Before this trip, I thought I knew how the United States had been responding to the Syrian Civil War. We had admitted almost no refugees, and we were involved in some way militarily but I wasn’t aware quite how. After talking with some Syrians and conducting a bit of research, here’s what I learned.

The number of refugees admitted into the U.S. in 2016 was double what I expected at 84,995. This number accounts for refugees all around the world granted asylum in the U.S. In fact this is more refugees than the U.S. has accepted since the 1990s. But at a time when there is far greater need than we’ve seen since World War II, can we be doing more?

A country’s economy is often a factor influencing the number of refugees granted asylum. Part of that involves the percentage of population that country can support. In 2016, the U.S. population was 324,118,787. That means .026% of the U.S. population in 2016 was refugees from varying locations around the world.

Economically, we can resettle far more refugees. It seems that often times, economic reasons stop us as a nation from doing otherwise compassionate or common sense acts for foreigners or our own citizens. So what’s getting in the way here? You might be able to guess what I’m going to say here: fear. It’s become so ingrained in our heads that we almost have to work to not automatically think of someone from the Middle East as a terrorist. This is heartbreaking, especially when the facts so strongly oppose the amount of fear we have. Here’s some statistics related to our anxiety toward refugees (especially from Muslim-majority countries) that I find very interesting.

  • If you are an American, there is a 1 in 3.6 billion chance that you will be killed by a refugee. To put that into perspective, Americans are more likely to die from stairs (1 in 2,739), cows (1 in 16.2 million), your TV falling on you (1 in 1.8 million), lightning strike (1 in 174,426), and more. If you want to be afraid of something, choose one of those; they’re rare but still much more likely than being killed by a refugee.
  • From 2011-2015 about 12% of terrorist acts were committed by Muslims. Over 50% of terrorist attacks were committed by white supremacists, often self-proclaimed white supremacists.
  • We do get disproportionate coverage of Muslim-American crimes, but not in the way we might expect. When looking at coverage in American media about American crimes, “a perpetrator who is not Muslim would have to kill on average about 7 more people to receive the same amount of coverage as a perpetrator who is Muslim” (Erin Kearns, criminologist at Georgia State University, quoted on NPR’s podcast Hidden Brain).
  • Muslim-Americans account for 1% of the U.S. population.
  • There have been 3 terrorists who have entered the U.S. through the Visa Waiver program since the program was started in 1986. That amounts to 1 terrorist for every 129 million entrants with the program.

Though it feels difficult for everyday people to make a change in federal government policy, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. Policy never changes overnight; first the will of the people has to change. For that to happen, we each need to make a conscious effort to put that almost automatic fear and uncertainty aside and remember the positive stories we’ve heard about Muslims and refugees. We can spread those stories to make other people aware that we should be less afraid of refugees than we should be of our TVs falling on us. It may not feel like much, but step by step, we can affect change in the world around us.

Salam Alaikum; Aismi Hu Waseem

Salam alaikum: a common Arabic greeting meaning peace come to you. Instead of commonly greeting each other with something like hi or hello, salam alaikum starts a conversation by wishing the other peace.

Aismi hu Waseem: my name is Waseem. This post offers a glimpse into Waseem’s life as a young Syrian man. Of course this isn’t even close to a complete account of Waseem’s life, but many stories make up a life. Like all true stories, Waseem’s is a mix of happiness, struggle, and everything in between.

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Now What?

We’re back from Germany, and have been for a while now. Getting back was different than I had expected, both in positive and not quite so positive ways. I thought answering the what’s next question would be easy. Turns out, not so much. Here’s a bit of what I’ve been thinking on that topic.

Where do we go from here?

Fireworks for Syria

On New Year’s Even in Damascus, Syria, the sky used to dance with the sparkle and splendor of July 4th. Fireworks were banned some time ago, so these bright pops of light no longer fill the skies, but the sounds remain. Sounds that create a rattle in your breastbone. The ears of the residents echo with the boom of not fireworks, but gunfire. In Damascus, the year begins with murder. Continue reading “Fireworks for Syria”

Compassion ADHD

In the thesaurus, one of the most highly recommended synonyms for compassion is sorrow. All the other listings in this highly recommended category depict ways we treat our fellow humans. Even though sorrow isn’t really a synonym for compassion, I’m glad they included it. To be compassionate, one is often opened up to sorrowful feelings. We want to be compassionate, but it’s difficult to continue that compassion knowing the sadness it can lead to.

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Fear of the Unknown

Fear guides many of our decisions. When we don’t handle our fear, it can cripple us. This kind of fear entraps us, we are not able to move in any direction. In these situations, the individual with the fear is hurt by their fear. Unfortunately, sometimes being crippled by fear hurts who or what the fear is directed at more than the person with the fear. One common instance of this today is Islamophobia.

“Islamophobia magnifies all other fears.” -Ahmad

Continue reading “Fear of the Unknown”