Over nearly five years, I have interviewed more than 300 displaced Syrians in the Middle East and Europe. My forthcoming book, a collection of testimonials in which Syrians explain their country’s conflict in their own words, shows that these men, women and children are far from security threats.
The Syrian refugees I have met are ordinary people whose lives have been upended by extraordinary suffering. Some were tortured for peacefully calling for freedom. Others spent months eating leaves when their communities were encircled and starved. Still others barely escaped bombs that flattened their neighborhoods. They have lost homes, limbs, loved ones, dreams. All say that they would prefer to live with safety and dignity in their own country if they could. But they cannot.
These real-life refugees from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East do not resemble a “Trojan horse,” as Trump has called them. As Americans continue to contest the White House’s discourse on refugees, there are three points to keep in mind.
1. Vetting is already extreme
Trump’s order fulfills his campaign pledge to institute “extreme vetting.” However, the current U.S. vetting process is already one of the most extreme in the world, especially for Syrians. The United States considers Syrians for asylum only after the United Nations registers them, interviews them, grants them refugee status and chooses to refer them to the country — a decision typically reserved for the most vulnerable one percent of refugees worldwide.
Refugee applicants then are reviewed by the State Department, which conducts two to three background checks and matches their photos and fingerprints to biometric security databases. Syrians subsequently undergo one or two more layers of review by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, a thorough interview with the Department of Homeland Security, a medical screening and a cultural orientation class. Only then are they matched with an American resettlement agency. Before leaving and again upon arriving in the United States, they pass through additional security checks.
This screening process usually takes up to two years. It is unclear how it could be made more effective in catching potential security threats.
2. The U.S. admits very few Syrian refugees.
As a candidate, Trump called “to stop the tremendous flow of Syrian refugees into the United States,” citing their numbers as reaching the “tens of thousands.” From the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011 through the end of 2016, the United States resettled 18,007 Syrian refugees — nearly 90 percent of them since October 2015. This amounts to about 0.3 percent of the nearly 5.8 million Syrian refugees in the Middle East and Europe. An additional 7.6 million Syrians are internally displaced.
The overwhelming bulk of external Syrian refugees languish in poverty and legal limbo in Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon. Half of the 1.5 million children among them are not in school. In Jordan’s Zaatari camp, now the country’s fourth-largest city, 80,000 refugees battle sandstorms in summer and floods in winter. In Lebanon, where 1 million Syrian refugees total approximately a quarter of the population, destitute families live in warehouses, under bridges and in squalid informal settlements. In Turkey, host to more than 2.8 million Syrians, children and adults labor under severely exploitative conditions.
Given such suffering in border countries, it is little wonder that refugees risk everything to get to Europe. Thousands drown en route. Some make it, only then to freeze to death. Less wealthy countries are bearing the burden of the greatest refugee crisis of our times, and the United States’ share is already small.
3. Refugees are not terrorists.
Trump has accused Syrian refugees of links to terrorism, declaring they are “definitely in many cases, ISIS-aligned.” But Syrian refugees are themselves fleeing the terror of state violence, war, persecution and extremists such as the Islamic State. Moreover, the historical record shows that no refugee has ever carried out a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. The majority of extremists in the United States charged with terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001, have been native-born.
Nothing sheds light on who refugees are more than listening to them convey what they have endured, what they hold dear, and what they want to achieve. And their voices paint a truth very different from what Trump himself has claimed.
Wendy Pearlman is an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University. Her book, “We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria,” will be published by HarperCollins in June.