Ed. Note: U.N. estimates put the number of Syrian refugees that have fled the country since the start of fighting two years ago at close to 2 million, with another 5 million internally displaced. Political commentator and Middle East expert Jamal Dajani says this unfolding crisis has been largely ignored by the United States, and that an approach that takes into account humanitarian needs could offer a chance at resolving the wider conflict. Dajani has traveled extensively in the region and will be touring the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan later this month. He spoke to New America Media editor Peter Schurmann. (Photo: UNHCR tents at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Credit: Jamal Dajani.)
New America Media: You’re preparing to depart for Jordan. What is the purpose of your trip?
Jamal Dajani: I will be visiting the largest [Syrian] refugee camp there, which is called Zaatari. It’s one of the largest refugee camps in Jordan, and one of the largest in the region. Just to give you an idea, Zaatari has 100,000 refugees in it. This is a very arid piece of land close to the Jordanian-Syrian border that used to be a Jordanian military base. The closest town [to the camp] is called Mafraq, which is the fourth largest city in Jordan. It has 52,000 people living in it, and the Zaatari refugee camp is now double the size of the town.
NAM: A number of refugee camps have been set up in neighboring countries since the start of the Syrian war. Why are you going to this particular one?
Dajani: This will be my third visit to the area. I did an assessment of the area a year ago and found there were roughly 25,000 Syrian refugees in the camp. A year later there are 100,000, with at least 30,000 children. So now I am going to follow up on my earlier work.
NAM: What are you expecting to see?
Dajani: Well I am not expecting to see anything pleasant. I have a good idea of what to expect … but I think it’s important to put this in context. While everyone is talking about military action, strike or not strike, a vote in the Congress and now chemical weapons … after these stories die out, people will forget about the refugees. You always see a peak of interest … and then always, the refugees get left behind. And I have a long history with refugees. As a Palestinian, my family was made refugees in 1948. And 65 years later, we still have a refugee problem with the Palestinians. I once did a story (in 2004) on Iraqis who fled to Syria. Imagine the irony today with Syrians becoming refugees and going into Iraq. It is a never-ending issue. To add more context; in March of this year there were 1 million Syrian refugees, today [there are] 2 million. The number doubled in six months.
NAM: What is the population of Syria?
Dajani: About 21 million, so we’re talking close to 10 percent of the population. Lebanon alone has 728,000 Syrian refugees, or 20 percent of the country’s population. Proportionally, relative to population size, the United States would have to take in 50 million refugees to be equal the number Lebanon has taken in.
Of internally displaced Syrians, there are currently 5 million, or one third of the Syrian population. These figures come from the United Nations. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees called this the “Great tragedy of the century.” For me, the saddest statistic is that more than half of all those displaced are children.
NAM: Can you describe what an average day is like for a Syrian child in one of the refugee camps?
Dajani: Inside the camp, in fact, certain age groups are better off. For example, at Zaatari, the United Nations and other donor countries set up a couple of schools. When I visited, they had kids from 7 to 13-years-old all taking the same three classes. So, some of the younger kids may get to learn to read and write. But if you are 16 and two years from college, you’ve lost those last years. You will never get into college. This is why we see some kids becoming child soldiers, or young Syrian girls marrying early to wealthy Arabs and Jordanians. The families just can’t support their kids. It’s almost like they are selling them away.
NAM: Given Syria’s ethnic diversity, are the refugee camps being formed along ethnic lines?
Dajani: I have yet to see a study that looks at camp populations broken down by ethnicity. But in the camps, for example at Zaatari, there are fault lines that run not along ethnic lines but political. I heard people complain about how some of the combatants and their families were allowed to enter the camp. So you’re mixing people who are neutral with those who have either fought against or for the regime. There have been frictions in the camps because of this.
NAM: There are reports that with the growing number of refugees, host countries are beginning to withdraw the welcome mat.
Dajani: There are Jordanians beginning to say, “Hey, you are coming to my country, working for cheaper wages and driving up the rents.” After a while, the welcome begins to wear out, usually by year two or three. Syria had been in this position, welcoming Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. Now they are the ones in need of welcome. Jordan, too, has hosted Palestinians, Iraqis, and now Syrians. Lebanon is the same story. In essence, they have been seeing a flow of refugees for the past 60 years. And if there are any countries used to this, it is these. But when you go further abroad, say to Egypt, you don’t see a lot of refugees. Egyptians have their own problems.
NAM: What have you made of the debate we see in the United States over whether or not to strike Syria?
Dajani: I think the United States abandoned Syria three years ago. The Obama administration gave it very little attention. And I wondered why this was the case. Was it fatigue, after getting involved in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and then Libya? When Syria came, we looked the other way. Three years later, the big question for me is, after more than a hundred thousand deaths, what difference does it make if we say chemical weapons or not? The other question is, if Assad surrenders his weapons, will that stop the killing? Even if he does surrender them, the conflict will continue and more people will die or be made refugees. We are putting too much emphasis on the military option. And now it has become official that we will begin arming the rebels. Where is that going to take us?
NAM: Is there a humanitarian solution to the crisis in Syria? And can there be international consensus on it?
Dajani: Yes. By internationalizing the humanitarian situation, and not the battle, which is already internationalized. Inside of Syria, information [on refugees] is very limited because of the security issues. What we do know is that we have 5 million displaced. But because the government there is under the threat of attack, it is unlikely to allow a corridor of humanitarian aid from the United States. And that is the first thing that has to be established, which is why Russia is very important. Moscow is the only one that has Assad’s ear. Everyone else wants to attack him … he is like a cornered cat. I am not saying he is an angel, but he is part of the puzzle. The Russians can help broker an agreement to create a safe corridor to help the people inside the country. That is the first international intervention that should take place.
NAM: As a Palestinian, do you see something unique in the plight of the Syrian refugees.
Dajani: Every circumstance is different, though there are similarities. When the Palestinian crisis first erupted, I doubt many Americans even knew of Palestine beyond what they’d read in the Bible. I think what’s different here is the sheer numbers involved and the short period of time that this has unfolded. In this day and age, this is the failure. With all the information available, we have gotten this far without anyone having lifted a finger. That is the shock.
Jamal Dajani is an award winning producer and journalist. He is the former vice president of International News at Link TV where he co-created and produced more than 2,000 installments of Mosaic: World News From the Middle East, winner of the prestigious Peabody Award.
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