Maria Ulayyet: Screening for Syria in the 2020 presidential election

Wednesday, February 13, 2019 - 4:08pm

In the midst of the Syrian refugee crisis, I watched helplessly as my aunt and three cousins escaped the turmoil and violence of our motherland in small plastic boats. They braved the unknown of the Mediterranean Sea on their journey to freedom, to only later continue on this journey with weeks of smuggling starting from Greece to their final destination of Germany.

Months later, I sat on the floor of Chicago O’Hare International Airport for hours, awaiting the arrival of my other Syrian aunt who was later detained and unlawfully sent back as Trump’s infamous “Muslim Ban” was signed while her flight was in the air.

While the countless stories I heard and heartbreak I saw from family, friends or the media were dismaying, these events in my own family were my personal turning point in rethinking the U.S. approach to Syria. As the daughter of two Syrian immigrants, I learned about American politics through the broken U.S. immigration system. Who is it that fills these gaps or fixes the flaws that were evident in the policies that dictated the entirety of my family’s structure?

Growing up as a Syrian American, especially as a first-generation American, it’s often hard to take a genuine interest in a system that you feel is pitted against you and your family. My parents instilled in me a desire to not only utilize my voice by being an active citizen, but also to simply care about politics. My concern stems from my familial attachment to the issue, but the segment of the American population that claims to care about Syria and the refugee crisis needs show it.

As we near the 2020 presidential election, the evaluation of the candidates becomes especially pertinent. Syria and its humanitarian crisis has been a hot button issue for many progressive, liberal-leaning individuals. While care and compassion are essential and the first step in providing valuable institution-wide change, such energy must be matched with effective political actions.

Since President Barack Obama’s admission of regret towards his inaction in Syria, it has become evident that the United States — specifically its commander-in-chief — cannot stay silent over such humanitarian crises. Many of the 2020 Democratic candidates, including Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have emphasized their desire to withdraw from Syria as Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad continues to commit mass genocide on the Syrian people. As a leading world power, the United States faces a responsibility to support and advocate for humanitarian efforts.

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, recently announced her run for the 2020 Democratic nomination. Gabbard is infamously known for going to Syria meet with Bashar al-Assad, claiming that she was “skeptical” over his involvement in deadly chemical attacks on Syrian civilians and that there are “a number of theories” over what is going on in Syria.

Gabbard followed her meeting with the introduction of her “Stop Arming Terrorists” Act. After dehumanizing the atrocities occurring against innocent civilians as simply a matter of al-Assad's secularist government versus Islamic State rebels, she urged Congress to stop using taxpayer money, both directly and indirectly, to fund groups allied with terrorists organizations attempting to overthrow the Syrian government.

The deaths of real people, the life-threatening escape of my own family members — and millions like them — is not an issue of theories or speculation. Gabbard’s blatant ignorance characterizing the humanitarian crisis in Syria as a mere bilateral issue becomes increasingly alarming to Syrian Americans like myself who are watching the erasure of the realities of the war crimes being committed daily in Syria. And because these politicians are not alone in their indifference to Syria, I feel my fears of the world forgetting about Syria becoming a palpable reality.

While Democrats and Republicans alike continue to express their views on the refugee crisis — whether for or against increasing the number of immigrants Trump allows into the U.S. — the reality is that this problem stems from a need to fix issues on a systematic level within Syria.

Whether we look at Germany as a model for their refugee integration system or remodel our own current system, the concern on a presidential level for action in Syria is vital to fixing this humanitarian issue. As we move closer to the heated 2020 presidential race, it is crucial to and question the rhetoric on Syria that these candidates are expressing. If we, as Americans, want to continue having an opinion on the refugee crisis, we must also have an opinion on Syria and our country’s role in combatting oppression.

Maria Ulayyet can be reached at mulayyet@umich.edu.