Refugee Crisis is More Than the Numbers

Since coming to Istanbul for a semester abroad, the issue of the Syrian War has been ubiquitous, particularly the question of how to deal with everyone who is trying to get out. I’ve paid keen attention to the reactions on the news of

American politicians.

The United States is truly a fortunate country. We have the largest economy in absolute terms and the mightiest military the world has ever known. Our culture and language penetrate the farthest corners of the world. Yet, I cannot help but think that we have a tendency to pick and choose what we pay attention to. One of the side effects of that tendency is that we often resort to vagueness as we start using terms like “the refugees” as if they’re a monolith. Behind every news story are people and behind every person are more stories. Here in Istanbul, there aren’t just reports, there are faces and names.

I spoke with two teenage boys from Aleppo, the largest city in Syria. I met these boys at church. One of them, George, told me what life was like before the war started. He said that nobody really cared if you were Muslim or Christian. There was a rich diversity of Syrian Orthodox and Catholics in some of the central neighborhoods, his brother explained.

In much the same way that the war brought devastation and destruction to other parts of the country, the boy’s community in Aleppo was no different. Anybody who could leave, left. Shelling and bombing destroyed most of the neighborhood. The Free Syrian Army and Assad’s forces turned entire parts of town into battlegrounds.

The community held together as best it could. The churches distributed food, clothing and a few dollars whenever possible. Life went on even as things got

progressively worse.

“In Syria if you see an accident like a truck or car [get bombed] after one day or two days, life continues, nobody cares,” George said.

At some point, the perverse new normal became too much.

“You can’t live under the bomb rain. It’s not possible,” I was told. 

Everyone knew someone who had taken a perilous and sometimes fatal boat to Greece. There was not much anyone could do to help. Churches had been hit by bombs like everywhere else. 

People had to find their own way out, hoping to get to Europe. Workers at a local NGO told me that the chance of getting a visa to Europe or the US ranged from “very nearly impossible” to “outright impossible.” Millions are in refugee camps in Jordan or Lebanon. Millions are in political limbo here in Turkey, unable to move forward or backward.

Often, war is not defined by gain but by loss. By the United Nations’ count, over 191,000 people are dead. But look past the black and white figures in the news and see what else has been lost and what we still stand to lose. Aleppo has lost the diverse community of Christians and Muslims that made it unique. 

We have not had to encounter these people face to face because they are far away and because of that, we are losing our empathy as we grow more frustrated with politics at home and abroad. I worry that we in America, safe, are losing the ability to see the people swept from their homes as anything more than an abstract political issue or a number in the newspaper. To lose that sense of empathy and compassion for our fellow man is to lose more than a battle or a campaign. It means losing something essential. 

It means losing something human.