EMU students offer personal perspectives about Syrian refugees

Sharing photos, stories, poetry and prayer, three graduate students with Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding have joined together to offer personal perspectives on the Syrian refugee crisis. 

Ahmed Tarik, Jordan Detwiler-Michelson and Myriam Aziz have presented at Park View and Shalom Mennonite churches in Harrisonburg, and they hope to continue sharing in the future. Each has recent experience in Syria or with Syrian refugees. 

At Park View, the group presented beneath brightly-colored banners reading ‘faith,’ ‘hope,’ ‘love,’ and ‘joy’ and depicting simplistic imagery that contrasted vividly with the evening’s subject matter: a clash between the ideals of faith and humanity and war’s injustice. 

Tarik opened with a poem called “Home” by Somali-British poet Warsan Shire. He read, “No one leaves home unless/ home is the mouth of a shark.” Born in Baghdad, Iraq, Tarik fled his home city in 2006 due to war. He sought refuge in Damascus, Syria for three years. 

During that time, Tarik worked as a photographer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) documenting the life of Iraqi youth refugees in Damascus. Tarik directed attention to what is widely considered by the United Nations and other organizations with a history of involvement in refugee matters to be the world’s largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. 

“It is not easy to be uprooted from your home for no other reason than violence,” he said. Tarik urged those present not to treat Syrian refugees like a burden, as Syrian families readily opened their homes to his other families fleeing the Iraq war. Detwiler-Michelson, also a second-year graduate student, was one of the last members of Mennonite Central Committee’s team to leave Syria in 2011. 

The school in which he taught is now, he says, headquarters for Kurdish military forces. The Syrian refugee crisis “exists within a complex and dynamic political landscape,” he said. Using his own photographs of Damascus, Detwiler-Michelson sketched the cultural richness of that city’s ancient history.“What does it mean to leave home when home is where your family has lived for 4,000 years?” he asked. 

Detwiler-Michelson’s own sense of Damascus as home developed during his sojourn with members of the Syrian Orthodox Church community, ranging from laypersons to the church’s archbishop and his retired predecessor. From these Syrian people, many of whom are now displaced, Jordan says he learned about true service, full joy and the meeting of challenges as a community. 

In a gesture of solidarity, Detwiler-Michelson played a clip of the Lord’s Prayer sung in Aramaic — a lament that evokes the current suffering his Syrian friends now face. Finally, Aziz detailed her recent experiences as a UNHCR case worker determining refugees’ legal status in in Lebanon. [Aziz returned to Lebanon in December to meet with refugee families and begin work on a CJP-funded film project that she hopes will help Americans better understand who Syrians are.] 

Lebanon, a country of 4 million people, is now home to 1.3 million Syrian refugees, she said. However, as Lebanon does not assign legal refugee status to persons fleeing conflict in Syria, this displaced population is known in Lebanon as “asylum seekers.” Registering with UNHCR is the only path to legal refugee status for Syrians, but that process is long and rigorous. 

Aziz used personal photos to show life in the temporary UNHCR camps. She also discussed daily shortages of food and other resources. One goal is sharing her stories and photos, she said, is to highlight that “we fear what we don’t know — if you know these people then you won’t be so afraid.” 

Story by Jesse Morales and Lauren Jefferson

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