By Mariam Mahmud
September 24, 2015
2010 was a watershed year for me. I had lived in the US since 1989, in New York since 1999 and was almost worried that I would never find another place that I would call home again. Those were the days when Lahore was out of the running entirely. Then I went to Syria. For no reason but to take a break and volunteer with a small organisation that worked with Iraqi refugee children seeking admission into college in the US. In those three months, I studied Arabic at the university, I travelled to Aleppo and Bosra, Afamea and all the villages around the capital, visited the oldest churches on earth and countless shrines. In those three months, I knew where I wanted to live next: Damascus. But then the war started and what was deeply coveted became impossible. Since then, every time I have spoken about the city or the country, I have felt my soul swoon with the memory of being there. When I have met a Syrian anywhere in the world, I have lowered my head in deference to the creation whose grace and dignity floored me and all the other foreigners who were lucky to have spent time there.
In The Quest for the Red Sulphur, a book on the Life of Hazrat Ibn-e-Arabi (ra) a line reads, “Live in the land of Sham if you are able because the Messenger of God (peace be upon him) said, ‘Take care of the land of Sham because it is the land for which God has shown His preference and it is from there that He chooses the elite of His servants.’” It is therefore with deep shame that I admit the time it has taken me, far too long, to write something about the plight of the Syrian refugee, about that devastated state of that part of the world that has invoked in the rest of the world a humanity that should have first surfaced amongst the Muslims.
As it turns out, Germany is the nation that will be taking the lead in the world in terms of providing the Syrians and others in their time of need what they require most: life. On top of that, a home, an education, a livelihood, healthcare, essentially a life that is at par with that of its indigenous population, which is one of the richest in the world. Chancellor Merkel, in the face of heavy criticism, committed to repatriating the highest number of refugees opening their borders to up to 500,000 not just this year but every year for years to come. Granted, Germany is also in need of young labour to replace its aging workforce but even better that there is a mutual benefit rather than rhetoric around favours and burden. For at least a while Germany was being hailed as ‘the promised land’ and the world was rightly in awe of it. Since then chaos from the influx has caused sharp divisive rifts in policy within the EU but all in the light that the Syrians, if no one else, would be accommodated one way or another by some countries in the union if not all.
The US is playing a smaller role in the crisis having committed to 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016. This is mainly because of a presidential election next year that is being dominated by a Republican bleating about xenophobia, which seems to be the primary driver behind his rapid emergence as the leader of the conservatives, Donald Trump. Opposite him is a Democrat staying clear of pushing new immigrants on a weary populace, Hilary Clinton, who will, it may as well be known, be the first woman president of the US in 2016 despite the range of her current scandals that seem to be implying certain defeat. But the country tops the list when it comes to financial assistance for the Syrians. Culpability in failed political agendas in the region aside, to date, the US has provided four billion dollars in assistance to the refugees.
Currently, out of a population of 22 million, four million Syrians are displaced externally, roughly eight million internally. The war between Assad and the multitude of armies that battle him have destroyed one of the oldest cradles of civilisation in the world sending its population first and foremost to its neighbours and then beyond. As the numbers of refugees crossing into Europe show no signs of abatement, the world rightly begins to ask, "Where is the Muslim ummah?"
Officially, there are roughly 1.1 million Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon, 1.9 million in Turkey and 630,000 in Jordan, which means that the actual numbers are likely a lot higher. Lebanon has a population of 4.5 million and Jordan 6.5 million so the number of refugees has placed an extraordinary strain on their resources. Both Jordan and Lebanon have also been host to the Palestinians since their exodus that began in the late 1940s. A few days ago a young Syrian friend of mine in Portland said to me: “What happened to the Palestinians is what is happening to us. They will never be able to return to their home and we will never be able to return to ours.” Her words sent a chill through me.
An entire generation of Muslims has nothing to show for what happened to the Palestinians after the British arbitrarily handed over their land to Israel in 1948. The South Asians, with their partition just a year before, were themselves reeling in the aftermath of the violence, chaos and resettlement. But decade after decade, the Arabs in particular and the ummah in general did nothing to right the wrongs the Palestinians experienced, until have come the days that their only rays of hope are Hamas and Hezbollah, two groups held up as terrorist organisations by the rest of the world. Now my generation, which includes the millennials, was going to be the same, ultimately indifferent as the Syrians and other Muslims displaced by conflict from Africa to Asia were dealt the same blow of destruction. The Germans were going to be the unlikely saviours while the Muslims turned away their faces.
(To be continued)
Mariam Mahmud is a freelance columnist