By Karen Culcasi, West Virginia University
We live in a world today where 68.5 million people are forcibly displaced, which is almost 1% of the world’s population. Those statistics are alarming. In this context, it is deeply troubling that the system created to help refugees and asylum seekers has failed the people it is supposed to support. The sense of humanity and compassion that once guided refugee policies has waned. Refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants are all too often confronted with hostility, violence, and repression both at state borders and through deterritorialized bordering processes that happen away from physical borders (Gorman 2016).
The USA, where I live, has a long history of resettling refugees and asylum seekers; and the country has benefited immensely from these migrants. However, this trend of acceptance is changing. This is plainly evident through countless examples of the violent deterrence of asylum seekers at the USA’s southern border and debates over building a wall. Yet, what is less visible in public discussion is the quiet, slow violence (Coddington 2019) of deterrence that happens through bordering practices of policy, legal regulations, and nativist ideologies.
Syrians are currently the largest refugee group in the world, estimated at 13 million. In 2016, under the Obama administration, the US resettled 15,479 Syrian refugees. The election of Trump, and the mainstreaming of nativist anti-immigration and Islamophobic politics (Bail 2015 and Beydoun 2018) have had profound impacts on resettlement of Syrian refugees. More specifically, the implementation of travel bans targeted at several Muslim majority countries including Syria (Executive Order 13769, known colloquially as the ‘Muslim travel ban’) and the lowering of refugee ‘ceilings’ (the maximum number of refugees permitted to enter the country) in successive years under Trump’s presidency has resulted in a near stop to the resettlement of Syrians in the USA.
In 2017, the USA allowed in 3,024 Syrians, 12,455 less than the previous year. In the first 3 and a half months of 2018, only 11 Syrian refugees were admitted, compared to 790 during the same time period in 2017. In 2018, a total of 22,494 refugees were admitted into the US, which was not only well below the 45,000 ceiling, but also lowest number of admissions since the 1980 Refugee Act was passed.
I wonder if the policy makers of the world, if Donald Trump, would continue to enact such humanitarian violence if they knew some of the Syrian women refugees in Jordan whom I met and spent time with. These women have experienced immense trauma and countless struggles, things that are incomprehensible to most Americans. Yet they are amazingly productive citizens of their communities throughout Jordan and within their households. Many Syrian refugee women are working for an income to support their families; some have started businesses, while others are learning new skills and earning degrees; all while caring for their families and coping with the trauma of war and displacement.
Fatima, for example, was in her second year of college, pursuing a degree in education, when the Syrian war erupted. Her family fled to Jordan, living for a short time in an apartment in the city of Irbid. Due to lack of money, her family moved into the Za’atari refugee camp several months later. In the camp, there was no chance for Fatima to continue her studies. She explained that,
“I couldn’t continue my education here, so I suffer a lot. I am one of the people who care a lot about education… I had high hopes about college because I was excellent in certain subjects in school and I wanted to go into grad school and get my masters as well as my doctorate.”
Fatima, at age 19, had her first child in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. When her son was just a few months old her husband left Jordan and traveled to the UAE to work and send money back to support the family. But Fatima could not wait for his financial support. So she got a job as a teacher’s assistant in Za’atari and was soon promoted to 2nd grade teacher. As a result, she became the primary income earner for her extended family, who were living together in the camp. Fatima is successful and proud. She is also full of humor and warmth. When she has free time, she often creates artwork to help the dire aesthetics of life in the camp. With the most meager of materials – dried beans and cigarette boxes typically – she has decorated her family’s caravan, as well as some of her neighbors’ walls, and small schoolrooms with designs like palm trees or sayings from the Quran.
I am humbled by the strength, resilience, ingenuity, humor and warmth of Fatima and the other Syrian women I met and interviewed. Though nearly all these women (and many other Syrians I spoke with) asserted without hesitation that they want to return to Syria and rebuild their lives, I believe that these women, and their families, would make wonderful neighbours, colleagues and friends; whether in northern, West Virginia, USA, where I live or elsewhere. Yet the slow violence of the bordering practices like the travel bans and the refugee ceiling are squelching any such chances.
Bail, Christopher. (2015). Terrified: How anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.
Beydoun, Khaled A. (2018). American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear. Berkeley, CA: University of California.
Coddington, Kate. (early view). The slow violence of life without cash: borders, state restrictions, and exclusion in the U.K. and Australia. Geographical Review doi: 10.1111/gere.12332
Culcasi, K. “We are women and men now”: Intimate spaces and coping labour for Syrian women refugees in Jordan. Trans Inst Br Geogr. 2019; 00: 1– 16. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12292
Gorman, Cynthia. (2016). Containing Kassindja: detention, gendered threats and border control in the United States. Gender, Place and Culture, 23(7), 955-968.