DONALD TRUMP’s son, Donald Trump Jr, was widely condemned this week after posting on the Twitter website: “If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.”
Nevertheless, fear has become a powerful influence on attitudes towards Syrian refugees in the United States. A year ago, three-quarters of Americans supported the acceptance of 10,000 Syrian refugees, but after the Paris attacks 53 per cent said that the US should stop accepting refugees altogether.
The Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees (MFA) is mobilising faith communities to support the victims of the conflict and address these fears. There was a “great deal of misinformation”, Dr Georgette Bennett, the founder of MFA, said when she visited London last week. But religious institutions were ideally placed to “mobilise and convene” to help refugees. The child of Holocaust survivors, Dr Bennett travelled to the US as a refugee in 1948.
Accompanying her on this visit to London was Shadi Martini, who fled Aleppo after defying the Syrian government by treating injured demonstrators in 2011. A “life-changing encounter” with an Israeli NGO that offered to help him get aid back to Syria led to his current work with MFA, where he is a senior adviser.
“I saw that co-operation through interfaith lines was something very important that will eventually bring people together and reduce the level of hate and animosity that we have in the Middle East,” he said. “So I devoted my life to work with other religious groups across religious lines . . . to deliver aid to Syrian war victims.”
Antipathy towards refugees is nothing new, he says: he recently learned about the MS St Louis, a German boat that travelled, with 900 Jews on board, to the US in 1939, and was turned away. Nevertheless, he finds it frustrating to see his countrymen labelled as terrorists: “You are a victim of something, and you are being labelled as such.” He believes that levels of racism will decrease after the current “very dangerous political season”.
After a recent “surge”, the US last month met its target of settling 10,000 Syria refugees this fiscal year. This is still a small number, Dr Bennett points out, in comparison with the country’s historical record of taking half the UN’s worldwide target for resettlement (130,000 for Syria). But the US has a “very good track record of integrating refugees once they arrive”.
“The public perception of an immigrant is a positive one, not a negative one; so you are welcomed, because everyone believes that that could be his father, his grandmother, or grandfather, or someone else that was before,” Mr Martini, who recently became a US citizen, says. “There is this culture of accepting the new person, the stranger. I think it’s unique for the United States.”
Despite a rise in xenophobia and Islamophobia, there are ways to “shift the needle” of public opinion, Dr Bennett says. They include telling positive stories of success and integration. She highlights recent research by the Cato Institute that found that the chance of being killed by someone on a refugee visa in the US was one in 3.6 billion per year. Fears about the impact of refugees on the economy are also ill-founded, she suggests: refugees end up as net contributors, and Syrians tend to be among the most highly educated of all refugees.
With a long view of history, Mr Martini holds on to hope for Aleppo. “We can rebuild the city. The most worrying thing for me is the people: the division between people who are now divided into two parts of the city. But Berlin was also divided; it was also destroyed, and it came back together and is a great city right now.”