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April 2, 2016

A Syrian Refugee’s Message to the European Union

IDOMENI, Greece — WHEN we first got here we had money to buy a little food. Now it’s gone. We stand in line for hours for a sandwich. My husband told a journalist recently: “People are fed up. Maybe tomorrow they will break down the gate and flood across the border.” The journalist said, “How many weapons do you have?” If we knew how to carry weapons or wanted to carry weapons we would not have fled Syria. We want peace. We are sick of Killing.

We fled a war, and now the European Union is making war against us, a psychological war. When we hear rumors that we’ll be let into Europe, we celebrate. These leaders give us new hope, then they extinguish it. Why did you open the door to refugees? Why did you welcome people? If they had stopped it before, we would not have come. We would not have risked death, me and my children, and thousands of others, to make the crossing.

I’m 39 and Kurdish, from the city of Hasakah. I knew from watching the news that Hasakah was under threat from the Islamic State. Every day last spring, the government would shell the city’s outskirts. Sometimes a stray shell would land near us.


Laila’s tent, right, at the refugee camp.CreditEirini Vourloumis for The New York Times

One day, at 5 in the morning, we heard the shelling and we knew that the Islamic State had arrived. I took my children and two bags and fled. In those days, everyone had two bags ready at all times: one containing important documents and the other clothes and other essentials. We ran through a dry riverbed. It was still muddy and we sank in up to our ankles.

Even before the Islamic State came, life under the Kurdish forces was very hard. There was no wood to burn. Once I asked my husband, “If we took out one of the roof beams to put on the stove, and left one, do you think the roof would fall?” He laughed. “Yes,” he said. “It would fall, and we’d be living in the street on top of everything.”

If you have a son in Hasakah today he has to go to war. It doesn’t matter if he’s your only son or if he’s studying. If there’s no boy, a girl has to go. Someone from every house has to fight if you want to stay in the area. The Kurdish forces tried to conscript my daughter. I had to smuggle her out to Turkey.

رسالة من مهاجرة سورية إلى الاتحاد الاوروبي

هربنا من الحرب طلبا للأمان مع عوائلنا. لماذا يجعل الاتحاد الأوروبي حياتنا أكثر بؤسا؟

Most of my family is in Germany, and so we decided to go there. We spent two months in a border area before fleeing to Turkey, where my husband was working. We found a smuggler through Facebook — a relative by marriage — and flew to Izmir. Two days later, we stood in the dark with 35 others somewhere on the Turkish coast.

We were the last people on the beach, my daughter, her husband, their baby and me. My daughter was sobbing. She said she didn’t want to go and that if she died, the guilt was around my neck. I didn’t know what to do. Then, like a dream, a young man came and lifted her and the baby into the boat. It was just me on the shore. I waded out to the boat. The smugglers lifted me from below, and my nephew pulled me up.

The day we arrived here in Idomeni people were still crossing the border into Macedonia. We thought we had arrived. We thought the hard part was the sea.

There is a saying in Arabic: “Even heaven, without people, is unbearable.”

I have three sisters and three brothers in Germany. The European Union wants to keep us divided between countries. If we sign up for the relocation program and the European Union assigns us a European country and we get that citizenship, will we be able to go to our family in Germany? I’m afraid they will change the laws and we won’t be able to go even then.

In our own country we refused to be separated. Are we going to agree here? Everyone in Idomeni just wants to go to their families; otherwise they would not have undertaken this dangerous journey to be reunited with them. In the next tent, there are two women who haven’t seen their husbands in two years. The men are in Germany and haven’t been able to bring their wives and children.


Laila hopes to leave Idomeni to join her family in Germany. CreditEirini Vourloumis for The New York Times

I want all the leaders in Europe to hear me: If any one of them agrees to be separated from his son, I agree to do the same. Or his brother, or his sister, or his cousin.

If they want to do this to us, let them give us back what we lost to come here, and send us back to Syria. If I wanted to live among strangers I would have applied to go to Canada. If you’re sick, who will help you? You need your brother, your sister, your mother, your father.

Bravo, Boris: Three Jeers for Idiocy, Insensitivity, and Ignorance on Syria


Boris Johnson (Image: REUTERS)

Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London and U.K. MP for Uxbridge and Uislip, has just tried to parrot Winston Churchill the way many aspiring—and, indeed, established—writers of English extraction ape Christopher Hitchens: some of his style, less of his substance, even less of his sense, and almost none of his sensibility.

In his tepidly-written, terribly-reasoned piece in The Telegraph, Johnson essentially gave us his “Two Cheers for the Dictator.” Casually conceding that the dictator in question, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is a “monster” who “barrel-bombs his own people,” fills his jails with “tortured opponents,” and serves as the son and successor of a man who ruled “by the application of terror and violence,” Johnson nonetheless celebrates Assad’s conquest of Palmyra—and indeed goads him on.

Perhaps writing with the best of intentions, Johnson displays an audacious amount of idiocy, insensitivity, and ignorance on Syria.

Johnson demonstrates sheer idiocy in expressing “elation” in reaction to the Assad regime’s move on Palmyra. Assad’s recent and brief campaign against ISIS has not unfolded in some sort of strategic and moral vacuum. (Syria’s war did not begin when ISIS seized Palmyra or beheaded an octogenarian archaeologist, any more than the militarization and radicalization of the struggle for Syria began when rebels began skirmishing with Assad’s security services.)

Assad’s campaign comes only after the Russians have helped him, as Johnson himself put it, “turn the tide.” During a months-long incursion into Syria, amid a years-long effort to support Assad militarily, financially, and diplomatically, the Russians have helped him route rebels of all stripes—without so much as sneezing at ISIS and the territories it controls. Having helped Assad secure and stabilize his hold over areas he deems necessary for strategic survival, the Russians are already trying to create more strategic space, leverage, and legitimacy for themselves and their client. At a minimum, they’ll fight ISIS fleetingly to position Assad as a partner in peace at Geneva. And they may very well succeed in the longer term, too: by wiping out the only factions that could conceivably challenge Assad in shaping Syria’s future, they can now wage war against ISIS, drag international participants and perhaps some Syrian rebels into a coalition of the awkward, and help Assad survive and spin his story as he already has for more than five years.

From that baseline, Johnson then moves to peddle the propaganda of both ISIS and Assad: he amplifies the terror of ISIS while feting—and indeed goading—on Assad, the latest in a long line of brutes branded as bastions of civilization. To be sure, ISIS—and the menace we’ve made of ISIS—seems far worse than the image of the Syrian regime. But that’s largely because they’ve each distorted their deeds differently as part of propaganda campaigns aimed at specific audiences as part of their respective, self-styled struggles.

ISIS tries to terrorize, and tries to instigate and empower others to terrorize, the West: it thus commits barbaric acts, spews hate, and tweets and taunts about it all. Instead of trying to mask its dark deeds, ISIS plasters them up as posters. It beheads American and British journalists and aid workers, burns Jordanian fighter pilots, shoots up cultural capitals and political capitals of the West—and then trots out sinister spokesmen like Jihadi John and his ilk, other Anglojihadist villains, it conjures from time to time—precisely because most of the world views such as beyond the pale. The Assad regime, meanwhile, tries to terrorize its own people (and any others in the Levant who stand in its way or otherwise fail to demonstrate sufficient fealty). Unlike the bearded barbarians they brandish as bugaboos today, Assadists deny their deeds on the diplomatic stage, before the press, and in the halls of power; but they then use the threat of such deeds to sow fear and chase respect at home (buttressing their credentials with the Alawite communal core, for instance, or deterring dissidents who—understandably—prefer not to be murdered, maimed, or maimed and then murdered). 

Against that backdrop, Johnson now sees Assad as Assad sees and sells himself: a suited and booted secularist ready to do business with the West as he did before the war and at key junctures during the war—like when he gave up chemical weapons, after using them, in 2013; allowed airstrikes against others competing to control Syria; or when he now offers to work with archeologists and preservationists to restore the ruins of Palmyra while he cleaves through the Sunnis of Syria. He does not duly acknowledge or address how Assad created conditions for the sort of radicalization and militarization of Syria’s struggle that have caused so much grief today. Nor does he consider how Assad contributed to the resurgence of radicals specifically (by, for instance, cooperating with terrorists bound for Iraq after the American invasion of 2003 or releasing hundreds of jailed jihadists after protests against his rule began spreading across Syria in 2011).

Johnson’s also insensitive to the lives, plights, and perspectives of the many Syrians, Iraqis, and Lebanese that don’t fall within the communities he and so many in the West have concerned themselves with. Cheering on the Assad regime as some sort of protector of minorities, unlike an ISIS “engaged in what can only be called genocide of the poor Yazidis,” Johnson—like so many others—again misses the mark. By fixating on and fascinating himself with the Yazidis, which he uses as a proxy for all minorities in the Middle East, he only elevates communities over individuals and categories of human beings over human beings themselves. Sunnis in Syria—or in Iraq or Lebanon, where they constitute minorities too—are being slaughtered by the thousands. Their lives don’t matter less, Johnson would surely agree, because they aren’t Jews in Israel, Christians in Lebanon, Alawites in Syria, or Kurds in Iraq. And yet he dumbly and dangerously suggests as much, by mirroring majoritarianism with the sort of minoritarianism that the Assad regime has used to shape Syria through decades of brutal rule and years of bloody war.

And, finally, Johnson essentially equates ruins and rubble with people. He ignorantly cheers on the regime responsible for the onset of war and for most of the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in it because that regime, see, at least hasn’t dynamited the ruins and historical artifacts of Palmyra. But while Palmyra is of course worth cherishing, saving, and restoring, it doesn’t matter more than the people of Palmyra—and of Syria—themselves.

Swept up in a struggle between civilization and barbarism, and caught up in his appreciation for art, culture, and history, Boris fails to focus on a few simpler, deeper, and far more pertinent truths. He celebrates how Assad has driven out the barbarians at the gates, but does not warn of the savages that lurk within the walls, too—or care to tell us that such savages have proven to be more dangerous to states and societies in the long sweep of history. He celebrates a symbol of our common heritage, but does not really remind us that our common heritage is itself a symbol and aspect of—not a substitute for—our common humanity.

And he cheers on civilization, but does not have the clarity or courage to see and say that civilization means—and must mean—more than ruins and rubble it has accrued or the value it gives them. A civilization is, and must be, about more than whether and how its people—and especially its leaders!—remember the past… It is, and must be, about whether and how they understand and cope with the crises of the present. It is, and must be, about whether and how they see and forge the future.


Anthony Elghossain would torch the Cedars of Lebanon to save a life—let alone hundreds of thousands of lives. He tweets @aelghossain


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