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Help My People, Let More War Refugees Settle Here: A Syrian American’s Message to Washington

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The United Nations has described the Syrian refugee crisis as the “biggest humanitarian emergency of our era.” More than 4 million Syrians have fled the country, and millions more are displaced inside the country. We speak to Syrian-American community organizer Sarab Al-Jijakli, who is calling on the United States to accept more Syria refugees. So far only 1,500 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the United States.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, we are joined here in New York by a Syrian American. In a moment, we’ll go to Vienna, where we’ll be joined by a Syrian refugee. Here, we’re joined by Sarab Al-Jijakli, a Syrian-American community organizer. He recently wrote a piece for The Guardian headlined, “The US must do more to help Syria. Step one: let more refugees resettle here.” He’s currently president of the Network of Arab-American Professionals.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

SARAB AL-JIJAKLI: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Following up on what Philippe Legrain is saying about what should happen in the United States, I mean, I think a lot of people may be seeing this as a European issue. What do you see it as?

SARAB AL-JIJAKLI: No, I mean, we pride ourselves in America as being the leaders of refugee resettlement, yet, as our previous guest has said, only 1,500 Syrians have been allowed entry into this country for resettlement. This is 1,500 over the course of four-plus years. Now, if you look at that, that’s a terribly tragic number and shows how ineffective American policy has been regarding refugees. One thing to note, the quota this year for allowance of refugees from all over the world into the United States is about 70,000. And to look at less than 1,500 allowed in for the biggest humanitarian catastrophe is problematic, to say the least.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what do you—how do you think those Americans who are concerned can put the pressure on now, on our lawmakers, to change those—basically, change those quotas, and on the White House to take action?

SARAB AL-JIJAKLI: Sure. There’s a petition going around, for example, that has in a few days gained over 50,000 signatories—a White House petition, that is. But I think, even more so, just jumping on this swell of energy and emotion related to the tragic losses that we’ve seen over the past week and a half, everyone in America can do something to reach out to their elected reps to push this agenda forward. As your previous guest said, this is a drop in the bucket. It’s not necessarily something that will impact jobs in America, for example. You know, a lot of the concerns that are raised by the far right here are really null and void when it comes to refugee resettlement. We all know this. So we can do more as a nation to help those in need, especially us.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you’re organizing a public event this weekend?

SARAB AL-JIJAKLI: Yes, we are. This Saturday in Union Square, there will be a rally, “welcome refugees” rally. And obviously we’re focused on the Syrian crisis and the Syrian catastrophe; however, this is “welcome refugees” across all aspects of life, wherever they are from.

AMY GOODMAN: And what the U.S. is doing in Syria now?


AMY GOODMAN: What the U.S. is doing in Syria right now?

SARAB AL-JIJAKLI: Yeah, I mean, what the U.S. is doing in Syria, I mean, U.S. has had a four-plus-year ineffective policy in Syria. But the second piece—part of the piece in The Guardian, I think, is to get at the root of this issue. And the biggest problem that we have in Syria, from a Syrian perspective, is who are the overwhelming perpetrators of violence that are driving these refugees out. And overwhelmingly, we know and we find that 85 to 90 percent of all civilians killed are killed by the Assad regime. And we know that the overwhelming driver of fear, of displacement, is this regime that has waged a war for four-plus years on their own people.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it clear who are bombing those in Syria? How do Syrians on the ground perceive it?

SARAB AL-JIJAKLI: Sure. Well, there’s two forces that control—that are in the sky, let’s put it like that, that are waging war from above. First and foremost, the United States for a year now has controlled the skies over Syria. So, much debate is being made over a no-fly zone, etc., but the United States controls Syrian airspace. What’s even more perplexing is that with that control, they’ve allowed the Assad regime to utilize their helicopters and air force to bombard and kill tens of thousands of Syrians from the sky. So it begs the question not about no-fly zone or this, but why the United States, which is the overwhelming broker of power in the sky over Syria, is allowing so many Syrians to die.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’d like to ask you—there’s been so much emphasis now on Europe having to contend with this huge refugee crisis, but yet there are countries in the Middle East now that have been dealing with this for years on a much bigger level. I’m thinking of Lebanon and Jordan, Turkey, which have hundreds of thousands of—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Millions of refugees that have escaped into their countries. Could you talk about the relative lack of attention to those?

SARAB AL-JIJAKLI: Sure. I mean, literally half of Syria’s population is displaced: 4-plus million refugees who have fled outside the country and about 8 million people inside the country. Even those refugees that we see on those boats today, they are fleeing for the second and third time in their lives. The picture we saw of that poor child drowned on the beach, his father initially lived in Damascus, was detained by the regime and had to flee Damascus a first time as a refugee with his family. He went back into Syria to Kobani and then again had to flee again. So, you see this is not a new issue. It’s four-plus years of dispossession and displacement.

AMY GOODMAN: And then you have, for example, what’s happening in Yemen with the U.S.-backed, Saudi-backed bombing of Yemenis, the crisis that’s being caused there. The front page of The New York Times today: “Iraqis Join Exodus, in Another Blow to Their Battered Country.” The number of refugees who are fleeing war—we’re going to continue this discussion after break. Our guests are Sarab Al-Jijakli, who is a Syrian-American community organizer here in the United States. We’re joined in London by Philippe Legrain. We are going to Austria to speak with an organizer of refugees there, as well as a 23-year-old Syrian refugee who made it to Vienna. Stay with us.

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