How We Can All Help with the Syrian Refugee Crisis
A lot of us want to help Syrian refugees, but actually making a difference can seem impossible, especially when you live thousands of miles away. Instead of feeling helpless, Northwestern professor Wendy Pearlman traveled across the world interviewing Syrian people about their life stories, which she compiled into a book, We Crossed A Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria. Here, she shares what she learned and how you can help.
What’s happening in Syria? Every day there are horrible photos in the news. We hear reports of bombings, chemical weapons, refugees drowning in the sea, and ISIS. It’s easy to see that what’s happening over there is terrible. But it’s hard to get the full picture of what the whole conflict is about.
Let’s go back to where it all started. In 1970, a military leader named Hafez al-Assad became the authoritarian president in Syria. There were basically no checks on his power. The secret police monitored the population, and anyone who criticized the government risked getting thrown in prison and never heard from again. In the year 2000, Hafez died and his son Bashar became president. Syrians hoped he would make change, but the system remained unfree.
Things changed in 2011, after the Arab Spring saw millions of citizens go out in protest in Tunisia, Egypt, and other countries in the Middle East. Syrians also launched peaceful demonstrations, many risking their lives to call for greater accountability and rights. The Assad regime used all types of violence to kill, arrest, or intimidate protesters. The protest movement remained nonviolent for about six months, and then took up arms to fight back. Violence escalated, other states and groups from outside Syria got involved and the war became more and more brutal. As of today, some half a million people have been killed and 11 million people have been forced to flee their homes.
I, like many, have followed this conflict from afar. But I wanted to know what it was like for the people who were living it, and figured that there was no better way than to ask them directly. As it was already dangerous to travel inside Syria, I instead decided to interview those Syrians who had fled the country as refugees.
In the summer of 2012, I traveled to Jordan, where a few initial contacts snowballed into conversations with dozens of displaced Syrians. During the next four years I traveled to Turkey, Lebanon, Germany, Sweden, and Denmark to interview hundreds of other Syrian refugees from different walks of life.
Along the way, I immersed myself in refugee communities as much as I could. I roomed with families for weeks, talked in cafés late into the night, and visited the injured in hospitals. I went to dusty refugee camps and school gyms that had been transformed into refugee shelters. I did volunteer work that ranged from teaching journalism to Syrian eighth graders in Turkey to distributing clothing in central Berlin. I played with children, washed dishes, scrolled through photos, and joined in for family meals. And whenever possible, I interviewed people about their personal stories. Many were heart wrenching, but others were uplifting and inspiring. They all gave me hope in the human will to live with dignity.
The war in Syria is one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of our time. Luckily, there are lots of ways to get involved with amazing organizations doing terrific work. Two of my favorite organizations, Karam Foundation and Jusoor, focus on education for children and young adults. Check out these groups to see how you can help raise awareness about their work or raise funds to support it. Another great way to help is to find Syrian refugee families who have been resettled in your community. You might be able to volunteer to assist them adjust to their new lives. In the process, you just might make a friend for life.
By Wendy Pearlman