US media is filled with disinformation about Syria, as I think I’ve documented fairly well. The question of Christian Refugees from Syria is no exception. The idea that this population of refugees is being discriminated against by the US government has largely gone unchallenged. This excellent politifact explainer does a good job of debunking the issue, but dances around the true reason why there are so few Syrian Christian Refugees in the United States. They devote about a sentence to the fact that Syrian Christians support Assad, and never mention the economic status of those Christians who leave, which are the two central points of my video.
The US government can’t fully commit to fighting the idea that they are discriminating against Christian refugees from Syria, because the truth does too much to undermine its narrative of the Syrian war. In Washington, DC’s story, the Syrian opposition is filled with moderate rebels trying to bring about a modern Syria. Acknowledging that Christians feel safer with Assad than they do with the Sunni opposition undermines that image. In Washington DC’s story, the Iranian influence on Syria is just as nasty and destructive as the Sunni rebels ever-closer affiliation with violent Wahabi Jihadism. According to the US government the Iranian influence is worse. In this story Assad, a member of a small, disapproved of, Shia sect, is somehow the leader of a Shia fundamentalist force. The continued comfort of Christians with Assad undermines this story. So does the fact that Christians have always been a privileged pillar of the Assad regime. In truth, Iran and Russia are the status quo powers here, trying to preserve the structures of the Syrian government as they have existed since the 1970s. They are of course maintaining the status quo with brutality and violence but it’s the US and our Gulf allies that are working to bringing anarchy.
I really like this video, I think it’s the closest thing to actual reporting that I have done in this Syria series. It was developed through long conversations with Syrian refugees I knew in my five years in Istanbul, Turkey. I don’t consider myself a journalist. My business is narratives, unpacking them, correcting them, and re-forming them. To do this I rely on the work of real journalists in Syria and around the world. At best I’m an opinion journalist. With this one I rise above that a bit, and I’m happy for the opportunity.
You may notice that the sound on this one is fantastic. My on-going battle with sound is hampered by amateur equipment, and my growing but meager sound editing capabilities. This week in Los Angeles I was lucky enough to get some professionals involved. Through the good offices of MFF Patron Abigale James I was able to procure the pro bono services of Sam May, a professional sound guy. Folks can argue about the content of this video, but nobody can dispute that it sounds fantastic. I remain super grateful for the support I get from friends and strangers. MFF may seem like it’s a solo effort, but it’s really not.
Video Transcript after the jump…
He said, “If you’re from Syria, and if you’re Muslim, it’s very easy to come into the United States, one of the easier places. But if you’re from Syria, and if you’re Christian, It’s almost impossible to come into the United States. One of the hardest things to do…”
Normally I feel pretty good about ignoring what Donald Trump says. And I feel the same way about Fox News. But this particular story, this particular idea is getting a lot of attention from real news sources, and from real US senators.
Today I’d like to point out that this idea, this story, is simply not true. Newsweek is the most respectable of the outlets pushing this story, so with this video I’m largely going to respond to this article. I don’t think Newsweek is lying here. I just think they are uninformed. They are missing two basic facts about Syrian Christians that I’m going to lay out in this video.
But first I’d like to address what the article gets right. I find it very easy to believe that Syrian Christians are subjected to persecution in United Nations refugee camps. Refugee camps are horrible places. The “extreme vetting” process that we already apply to every Syrian refugee, requires that they spend as much as two years in these camps before they even get a chance to come to the United States.
This is a very real problem for very small groups of Syrian Christians, and Newsweek should be commended for bringing our attention to it. I haven’t read it in detail, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Republican senator Tom Cotton’s “Religious Persecution Relief Act” might be the right way to deal with this very real problem for small groups of Syrian Christians.
But that doesn’t get you here. The rest of the Newsweek article relies on a bit of simple math. There hasn’t been a census of religion in Syria since the 1970s. So we really don’t know how many Syrian Christians there are. The CIA puts the number at 10% of the Syrian population. The Pew research center puts it at 5.2%. But what we do know is the number of Syrian Christians that have been let into the United States as refugees. It’s only .5% of the total.
So yes, Syrian Christians are under-represented among the population of Syrian refugees in the United States. So that sounds pretty persuasive right?
Well… only if you don’t know anything about Syrian Christians. I lived in Istanbul for five years, and I actually know some Syrian Christians. This is what you need to know…
Most Syrian Christians are on Assad’s side. In early 2011, there may have been some, young, idealistic Christians marching against Assad. Their parents probably weren’t very happy about that. Assad, the leader of Syria, is from a religious minority. So he, and his father before him, have always used the other religious minorities, like the Christians, to control the 70% of the country that is Sunni Muslim.
Syrian Christians have been a privileged minority for decades. What very few people in the United States realize, is that the Syrian rebellion has been a largely Sunni thing from the start. From the end of 2011 more and more extreme elements of the Sunni insurgency have been taking control and making their ideology known. This has forced any Christians that were sympathetic to the rebels back to Assad.
Most Syrian Christians lived in and around the cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Homs. From the beginning of the Syrian civil war the Assad regime has controlled Damascus. And Despite what the US media tells you, they have also always controlled the majority of Aleppo. Many Christians are just fine with the Assad regime. And if they’re not, many of them realize that Assad may be the their only defense against people that want to kill them.
There are less Syrian Christian refugees in the United States, because there are less Syrian Christian refugees, period. But, many Christians, especially the young, have fled Syria. Which brings me to point number two.
Most Syrian Christians are more mobile than other Syrians.
Most Syrian Christians are better educated, have more skills, and are just plain wealthier than the other people in Syria. This has been true since the 1800s. During industrialization, Europeans who wanted to trade with the Middle East more naturally gravitated towards shared their religion. Syrian Christians have paid an incredible price for this, especially the Armenian Christian minority that has a sizable presence in Syria. But these communities survived the persecutions, and under the Assad regime, both Bashar Assad and his father, they have helped to run the country, and they’ve been rewarded for that. Syrian Christians are richer, better educated and more skilled than the average Syrian.
One Syrian Christian friend of mine speaks six languages, fluently. I’m pretty sure she’s an outlier, but most Syrian Christians do speak an additional language. Often including French or English. Because of money, education and skills, Christian Syrian refugees have much more power than the average Syrian refugee.
Many of them haven’t actually become refugees. Some of them have other passports, some of them can use their skills to apply for jobs and visas in other countries. The majority of Syrian Christians that did leave as refugees, started lives in Europe or Canada, or even in Istanbul. Turkey was doing pretty well for the first two years of the Syrian conflict.
Think about this for a second. If you were a young professional with marketable skills, would you choose to spend two years sitting in a refugee camp in Southern Turkey? For the chance that you might be able to go to the United States? Or would you just go start your life over in Berlin, or Toronto, or Istanbul? It’s pretty obvious.
The United States is not discriminating against Syrian Christians. Syrian Christians are discriminating against the United States, and it makes a lot of sense.
Before I close, let me say that there absolutely are poor, vulnerable populations of Syrian Christians, but the numbers are much, much lower than Newsweek, or Fox News, or Donald Trump wants you to believe. The hyper conservative, and very Christian Gatestone Institute estimated that at the beginning of 2016 there were 45,000 Syrian Christians waiting in Turkey to try to get in to the United States. If you plug that number into Newsweek’s math, then Syrian Christians may actually be over-represented among Syrian refugees in the United States.
So no, to repeat, The United States is not discriminating against Syrian Christians. Syrian Christians are very rationally discriminating against the United States. Many Syrian Christians do not want to leave Syria, and when they do, they have much better options than sitting around in a refugee camp for two years.
Thanks for watching, please subscribe, and let me know in the comments if there are any other topics you’d like to see covered. Also, you may want to sign up for my e-mail list, I’ve got a bunch of non-YouTube related projects coming up in the next couple months, and the e-mail list is the best way to find out about those. Thanks.