Tag Archives: Syria

If Donald would meet Fatima

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.  

Cigarette Box Bean art/

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.

Damascus: A City of Conflict

By Benjamin Sacks

On Wednesday, 18 July, a suicide bomber detonated his device inside the security offices of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Three of al-Assad’s closest allies were killed. ‘The rebel force’, The Guardian reported, ‘had just detonated a bomb inside the inner sanctum, something that was never supposed to happen in a state rooted in four decades of totalitarian rule and anchored in fear’. No longer a conflict removed from Syria’s cosmopolitan centre, the revolution against the Assad regime has finally hit the heart of this ancient society.

Located in the centre of the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent, Damascus has played a pivotal role in the development of Mediterranean, Arab, and Christian civilisations. Damascus’s centrality, its mystique, and reputation as a city enveloped by ancient beliefs, events, and peoples entranced the fledgling Royal Geographical Society. Like their predecessors, RGS explorers crisscrossed the western Middle East, invariably passing through its traditional apex. In 1834, W Burckhardt Barker travelled from Beirut to Damascus and beyond, keeping an insightful diary of his journey. As now, Damascus was a city in flux – except that, in 1834, it was the earth, not reformists, who sought revenge. An earthquake destroyed minarets, damaged the bazaars, killed a dozen locals, and sent hundreds in flight (101). Fourteen years later, Lieutenant Molyneux, of HMS Spartan, recalled another battle involving Damascus – this time, the British officers and local administrators asked the Pasha of Damascus to send forces to recover men and materiel stolen by nomadic Bedouins (123). In 1855, Reverend J L Porter lambasted the Society for the lack of accurate maps of Damascus: ‘No section of has hitherto been so much neglected by the geographer as the environs of Damascus’ (43). Porter, evidently annoyed by the inattention paid to one of the Arab World’s most important cities, took it upon himself to survey and publish new, more exact charts of Damascus and its environs.

H J Mackinder, in his famed ‘The Geographical Pivot of History’, recounted how the Turks seized Damascus to control the vast trading paths of the eastern Mediterranean (431). In the 1920s, as Elizabeth Monroe and Doreen Ingrams demonstrated, Damascus, like Tangiers, was a bastion of intrigue; a strategic middle point between West and East, where European, Ottoman, and Asian empires uneasily bordered one another. Such agents as the notorious Kim Philby operated in and around Damascus and Beirut, feeding information on French, Russian, Turkish, and Arab movements. Of course, Damascus’s political and strategic role took on renewed impetus after the 1967 six-day war between Israel and the Arab states. Israel, W W Harris pointedly recalled, was able to seize the Golan Heights, placing Damascus within range of its artillery. It was a bold statement of Damascus’s position as a vital cultural, political, and symbolic asset.

Martin Chulov, ‘Syria Engame: Who and What Will Emerge from the Ruins?‘, The Guardian, 21 July 2012.

W Burckhardt Barker, ‘Notes Made on a Journey to the Source of the River Orontes in Syria, in September, 1834‘, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 7 (1837): 95-102.

Lieutenant Molyneux, ‘Expedition to the Jordan and the Dead Sea‘, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 18 (1848): 104-30.

J L Porter, ‘Memoir on the Map of Damascus, Hauran, and the Lebanon Mountains‘, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 26 (1856): 43-55.

H J Mackinder, ‘The Geographical Pivot of History‘, The Geographical Journal 23.4 (Apr., 1904): 421-37.

Doreen Ingrams, ‘Philby, Great Arabian Traveller: by Elizabeth Monroe’, The Geographical Journal 140.2 (Jun., 1974): 305-6.

W W Harris, ‘War and Settlement Change: The Golan Heights and the Jordan Rift, 1967-77‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 3.3 Settlement and Conflict in the Mediterranean World (1978): 309-30.

Syria at the Apex

The peaceful Burj eslam coast belies Syria's current crisis between Ba'ath loyalists and the populist reform movement. © 2012 Wikimedia Commons.

Benjamin Sacks

In civilisation’s development, geographical location dealt Syria a bad hand. The ancient (and historically contested) region of Aleppo is hemmed in by a powerful Turkey to the north. To the west, an unstable Iraq straddles the Syrian Al-Hasakah and Deir ez-Zor governorates. Damascus, Syria’s capital, lies at an apex between Palestine, a hostile Israel, the eastern Mediterranean, Anatolia, and Jordan. Its centrality, claimed J L Porter FRGS in 1856, had been consistently underestimated by contemporary Western geographers (p. 43). A century and a half later, Syria’s violent upheaval would have not then likely surprised Porter. This is a landscape scarred by time and space, culture and religion. It was – and remains – one of the ‘geographical pivot[s] of history’.

It comes as little surprise that the Royal Geographical Society was involved in the surveying and analysis of Syria and its environs. Some research, as that undertaken by Dale R Lightfoot, takes on a decidedly geological twist, exploring the ancient (but still occasionally used) underground aqueducts (known as “qanat Romani” in Syria) that typify the region’s long-standing quest for water. His archaeological work provides a fascinating backdrop to Hussein A Amery’s more contemporary review of the Fertile Crescent’s ever-rising need for irrigation and drinking water.

Yet Syria’s strategic location has also piqued interest in the Royal Geographical Society’s historical role as an arm of imperial power. Under the efforts of Major Thomas Best Jervis, the Royal Geographical Society gained valuable experience in 1830s India, providing information to military and civil authorities (Heffernan 1996: pp. 505-506). ‘War’, as Michael Heffernan reminded us, ‘has been one of the greatest geographers’ (p. 504). During the First World War, the Royal Geographical Society ‘remained on an emergency, wartime footing’, benefiting in particular from T E Lawrence’s new surveys of Damascus and the Syrian plains (p. 515). The so-called ‘road to Damascus’ took on important overtones in the inter-war shuffling of European colonial designs in the Middle East, with Syria at its’ centre (see Farmer 1983: p. 73).

Echoes of Syria’s current chaos can be found in W W Harris’s classic ‘War and Settlement Change: The Golan Heights and the Jordan Rift, 1967-77′. Written when Israel’s seizure of the Golan Heights from Syria was still fresh in international minds, Harris investigated both sides’ respective claims on the region, as well as hinting at Syria’s domestic instability, supposedly quashed by the then-nascent Ba’ath Party movement. What remains constant through these accounts is the sense of Syria’s often dangerous position at the intersection of local and international desires.

J L Porter, ‘Memoir on the Map of Damascus, Hauran, and the Lebanon Mountains‘, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 26 (1856): 43-55.

H J Mackinder, ‘The Geographical Pivot of History (1904)‘, The Geographical Journal 170.4 Halford Mackinder and the ‘Geographical Pivot of History’ (Dec., 2004): 298-321.

Dale R Lightfoot, ‘The Origin and Diffusion of Qanats in Arabia: New Evidence from the Northern and Southern Peninsula‘, The Geographical Journal 166.3 (Sep., 2000): 215-26.

Hussein A Amery, ‘Water Wars in the Middle East: A Looming Threat‘, The Geographical Journal 168.4 Water Wars? Geographical Perspectives (Dec., 2002): 313-23.

Michael Heffernan, ‘Geography, Cartography and Military Intelligence: The Royal Geographical Society and the First World War‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 21.3 (1996): 504-33.

B H Farmer, British Geographers Overseas, 1933-1983‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 8.1 The Institute of British Geographers 1933-1983: A Special Issue of Transactions to Mark the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Institute (1983): 70-79.

W W Harris, ‘War and Settlement Change: The Golan Heights and the Jordan Rift, 1967-77‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 3.3 Settlement and Conflict in the Mediterranean World (1978): 309-30.

Syria at a Crossroads

Contested Syria: the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. Wikimedia Commons.

Benjamin Sacks

HOURS AFTER Syrian president Bashar al-Assad addressed a nation overwhelmed by protests and violence, British foreign secretary William Hague retorted that ‘if President Assad is to restore any credibility the Syrian people need to see concrete action [of reform], not vague promises’. Syria, Hague implied, is at a vital crossroad in its history. The future presents many questions, but few (if any) concrete answers. Will al-Assad maintain his family’s forty-year grip on power? Or will democratic opponents force the Ba’ath Party from Damascus? Can the West really impact Syria’s fate through international sanctions? One fact, however, is certain. Syria’s convulsions lie not only with its current socio-political crisis, but also in its geo-historical position, particularly with Turkey.

Syria, as Sir Leonard Woolley pronounced in the June 1946 issue of The Geographical Journal, ‘indeed occupies a wonderfully central position’ (p. 12). Situated in the heart of the Middle East’s ‘Fertile Crescent’, and bounded by the Mediterranean Sea, Syria stretches across Turkey’s southern border, down along Iraq’s western frontier, before reaching its contentious boundary with Israel, near the Sea of Galilae (Lake Tiberias).  The earliest known civilisations spread across the Syrian heartland, fostering some of the world’s oldest cities: Antioch (third century BC), Damascus (second century BC) and Aleppo (first century BC). The most important east-west trade routes passed through Syria, connecting India and the Orient with Europe and North Africa (Carruthers 1918, pp. 157-58). Syria enjoyed tremendous wealth from the Age of Antiquity through the Renaissance.

Syria’s wealth and location also targeted the region for conquest. Turkey’s vital contemporary role as arbiter between Syria and the international community is the result of centuries of Turkish influence (and, more often than not, interference) in Syrian culture. Syria lay at the centre of the Ottoman Empire; its political and economic importance underscored Turkish power. As Ottoman power waned at the turn of the twentieth-century, Western powers stepped in. Syria proved to be the most contentious region. The Royal Geographical Society, in its dual capacity as learned society and imperial instrument, initiated a series of excavations and survey projects. After the outbreak of war in 1914, the Royal Geographical Society increasingly pressured the British Government to ignore France’s own Syrian claims (formally enshrined in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement). The Society’s cartographers, as well as those seconded from the Army and Navy, produced numerous topographical and military charts of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the eastern Mediterranean coast. Unfortunately, so much conflicting data was submitted to the Society’s cartographers that their maps’ intelligence information was often out-dated by the time they reached front lines (Heffernan 1996, pp. 515-16).

Competing Anglo-French claims, however, did not entirely extinguish Turkish and Arab objectives. Syria lost Antioch in 1939 when France, its protector, transferred the region to Kemal Ataturk. Syria continues to claim the province. In 1958, Syria joined Egypt in short-lived ‘United Arab Republic’, intended by nationalists to assert a strong Arab federation. More recently, Turkey protested Syria’s tacit support for separatist Kurds; the Syrians had viewed the Kurds as compatriots against the Turks since at least the First World War (Hogarth 1915, p. 459).  Geography, for better or worse, has forced the fates of Syria and Turkey together. Although relations are often fraught with difficulty, modern Turkey remains Syria’s most important partner, a state that enjoys the rare privilege of favour in both Western and Arab diplomatic circles. History suggests that Turkish-Syrian relations will be crucial in solving Damascus’s populist crisis.

 Douglas Carruthers, ‘The Great Desert Caravan Route, Aleppo to Basra’, The Geographical Journal 52.3 (September, 1918): 157—84.

 William Hague,  ‘President Assad’s Speech Today was Disappointing and Unconvincing’, The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 20 June 2011, accessed 22 June 2011.

 Michael Heffernan,  ‘Geography, Cartography and Military Intelligence: the Royal Geographical Society and the First World War’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 21.3 (1996): 504—33.

 D G Hogarth,  ‘Geography of the War Theatre in the Near East’, The Geographical Journal 45.6 (June, 1915): 457—67.

 Leonard Woolley,  ‘Syria as the Gateway between East and West’, The Geographical Journal 107.5/6 (May-June, 1946): 179—90.

Also see: 

 Felix Driver, Geography Militant: Cultures of Exploration and Empire (Oxford and Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2006).

 Felipe Fernández-Armesto,  Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature (New York, London, Toronto and Sydney: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 189.