Wendy Pearlman is an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University, where she also holds the Martin and Patricia Koldyke Outstanding Teaching Professorship. She has spent more than 20 years studying and living in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Her new book is We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: More than 6 million people have fled Syria since the conflict began there seven years ago. Most of them have gone to nearby countries in the Middle East. In 2016, Obama’s last year, the United States admitted around 15,000 Syrian refugees. This year, with Trump as president, in the first three months we’ve admitted 11. Trump says that’s because we need “to keep Islamic radical terrorists out of the United States of America. We don’t want them here. We want to ensure we aren’t admitting into our country the very threats that our men and women are fighting overseas.” What does it take for a Syrian to get refugee status in the United States?
Wendy Pearlman: The “extreme vetting” that Trump called for on the campaign trail has already been in place for years. Less than 1 percent of refugees around the world are resettled to a third country like the United States. The process begins with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which screens refugees and identifies a very small number of the most vulnerable cases to be considered for resettlement. They then pass those cases on to the US government, where some eight different government agencies participate in layers of interviews, medical screenings, background checks, and matching of biometric data with security databases. As I elaborated in a piece I wrote shortly after Trump’s first travel ban, the process takes about two years.
JW: Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, recently said that the Syrians she has met in refugee camps do not want to come to the United States: “Not one of the many that I talked to ever said, ‘We want to go to America,’” she says. “They want to stay as close to Syria as they can.” You’ve talked to hundreds of Syrian refugees; did any of them tell you they’d like to come to America?
WP: Ambassador Haley’s statement is a misrepresentation of a very complex reality. Many Syrian refugees want to return home, provided that they can live safe and dignified lives there. They fled when that became impossible. And they were the lucky ones: The countries neighboring Syria have increasingly closed their borders, so many more Syrians would leave if they could, but cannot.
Once people get to a place of relative safety, a new cycle of challenges begin. Refugees have just survived traumatic violence and lost everything, and now they need to find work to make ends meet.
Of course many dream of returning home. The refugees I’ve met speak about Syria with tremendous love. They adore its landscapes and culture and foods and traditions. They want to be reunited with their friends and family, now scattered across continents.
But they also fled for a reason. For more than seven years, Syria has been consumed by a brutal war. The Assad regime has been willing to use all types of violence to stay in power. Its allies have enabled it with military, economic, and political support. The rest of the world has done shamefully little to stop the slaughter.
Through sheer force, the Assad regime is reconsolidating its control. But for many refugees it’s unthinkable to return and live under that regime again. How can they be expected to go back to the same government that has killed, starved, or tortured hundreds of thousands of its own citizens? Many Syrian refugees who participated in any sort of dissent fear that, if they return, they’ll also be killed or disappeared. What if they once posted something on Facebook that was sympathetic to the opposition? What if they had a friend or a family member who was critical of the regime? What if they’re from a town that is perceived as anti-Assad? Many people of this sort fear that, if they go back, they will face retribution. Or, in the best-case scenario, they will not face violence, but will return to lives of silence. They will return to the same authoritarian intimidation and subjugation against which they rebelled in 2011.
So you can see that, as long as Bashar al-Assad rules Syria, many refugees see no alternative but to live in exile. For themselves and their children, they believe that they have to try to build the most dignified lives they can as refugees. Given how difficult it is to do that in the Middle Eastern countries already hosting enormous numbers of Syrian refugees, of course many would love to move on to wherever they might find security and opportunity. And that includes the United States.
If the international community wants Syrian refugees to go home, it needs to be serious about ending the war in Syria in a way that guarantees citizens’ basic rights.
JW: What are their lives like as refugees?
WP: More than half the Syrian population has been displaced. An estimated 6-7 million are internally displaced. In addition, about 5.6 million Syrian refugees currently live in the Middle East, about 3.6 millon of them in Turkey, about a million in Lebanon, more than 600,000 in Jordan, and smaller numbers in Iraq, Egypt, and North Africa. Conditions there are dire. These countries do not offer Syrians asylum or refugee status. They’re treated as temporary guests, even if they have now lived there for six years or more. Syrian refugees who are able to find jobs typically work in the informal economy where they face exploitative conditions, very low wages, often unsafe conditions, and no legal protection. There are hundreds of thousands of children who are not going to school, and instead working 10, 12 hours a day in factories, agriculture, or any job they can find.
That is why you had so many risking their lives in inflatable boats to cross the Mediterranean in hope of getting to Europe. And that is why many more would come to the United States or elsewhere, if they were allowed.
This is not to say that refugees’ lives are easy once they get to Europe or the United States. But for some, life in the border countries is sometimes no life at all.
JW: One last thing: the title of your book, We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: What does it mean?
WP: The book is a collection of testimonials, based on interviews that I have done with hundreds of displaced Syrians across the Middle East and Europe since 2012. I curated those testimonials and arranged them chronologically to walk readers through the Syrian uprising, war, and refugee exodus. The book aims to help people understand what has happened in Syria, and also what it has been like for a cross section of men and women to live it.
The book consists entirely of Syrians’ own words and I wanted a title that did, as well. The title comes directly from the words of a man describing a protest in spring 2011, a time when hundreds of thousands of people were peacefully marching in the streets calling for change. The speaker recalls a demonstration was so large that, when the crowd crossed a bridge, the bridge trembled under its weight.
That passage reminds us that what is now a war began as a popular uprising. It’s a literal description, but it’s also a metaphor. Syrians have crossed many bridges. They’ve crossed from authoritarianism to revolution, from revolution to war, and now millions have crossed from their homeland to exile. All of those bridges have left Syrians trembling under the sheer gravity of pain and loss, even as they find the hope and strength to keep moving forward to the next bridge. Syrians have trembled and people all over the world should also be trembling, too. Because atrocities have happened on our watch, and they’re continuing to happen now.