With the war in Syria still one of the world’s major crises more than a decade after it began, 60 percent of Syrians remain displaced from their homes.
Returning Levinson fellow Joshua Levkowitz spent two years based in Istanbul traveling across Turkey and around Syria’s neighboring countries and beyond, immersing himself in refugee communities in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Qatar, Kuwait, Armenia and Germany.
“All have faced challenges in their transition, navigating new languages, new lands, new limitations,” Joshua said, reporting about his fellowship at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, DC on November 10. “The majority remains stuck in a kind of extended limbo, unwanted by the country they’re in, unable to move on and unwilling or unable to go back.”
Joshua has reported on issues related to migration, assimilation, identity and security, networks between Syrian migrants and Syria, and the impact the diaspora is having on host societies and politics, including the mounting pressure on Syrians to return home.
Full text from his speech below. Read his dispatches here.
Following his talk, Joshua joined an engrossing expert panel with Basma Alloush, External Relations Officer at the UN High Commission for Refugees, and Rafif Jouejati, co-founder and director of the Foundation to Restore Equality and Education in Syria (FREE Syria). The discussion was moderated to a rapt packed room by former fellow Andrew Tabler (Lebanon, Syria, 2005-2007).
This event was co-hosted by our partners the Delta Phi Epsilon Foreign Service Society.
Joshua Levkowitz immersed himself in Syrian communities living in Syria’s neighboring countries. He examined issues related to migration, identity and threats to security, including the degree to which Syrians are able to assimilate or integrate, the perception and effects the diaspora is having on host societies, and networks between Syrian migrants and Syria. Before his fellowship, Joshua was living in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil as a senior program officer on reconciliation with United States Institute of Peace.
Basma Alloush is the External Relations Officer at the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). She is also a lecturer at George Washington University’s Elliott School. Previously she was Policy Advisor at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) leading the policy team’s work on the Middle East, Afghanistan, and restrictive measures, and Senior Policy and Advocacy Adviser at the Norwegian Refugee Council USA.
Rafif Jouejati is the co-founder and director of the Foundation to Restore Equality and Education in Syria (FREE Syria), and the principal architect of the Syrian Freedom Charter project, which surveyed more than 50,000 Syrians on democratic aspirations and political transition. Rafif served as spokesperson and Executive Committee member of the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, and as spokesperson for the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces during the Geneva II peace process. She is a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.
Andrew Tabler is Senior Fellow in the Linda and Tony Rubin Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute, where he focuses on Syria, the Levant, and US Middle East Policy, and Director of the Institute’s Junior Research Program. Previously, he served as senior advisor to the Special Envoy for Syria Engagement at the US Department of State’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and director for Syria at the National Security Council’s Middle East Affairs Directorate. He is author of In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria.
‘Syrians in exile’ text
Good morning everyone. My name is Joshua Levkowitz. Firstly, I want to thank the Institute for accepting my initial idea, and for Greg and Bruce for working through my research over the last two years.
The title of my project was “Syrians in Exile.” I applied to pursue big picture fieldwork on the situation of the Syrian diaspora. I spent time with Syrians across Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Qatar, Kuwait, Armenia and Germany.
In one of my first articles about remittances, an older Syrian man told me a joke. The story goes like this. Presidents Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev and Hafez al-Assad, father of the current Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, meet at a summit in the mid 80s. To break the ice, they start discussing their salaries. “I make $400,000 a year,” Reagan says. Gorbachev puffs out his chest. “Ha! Well, I earn $500,000.” Assad, seemingly uninterested, responds, “Well, I make only 20,000 Syrian pounds per year,” only a few hundred dollars. Puzzled, Reagan and Gorbachev ask, “How do you get by on such a measly salary?” With a smirk, Assad replies, “Oh, my children send me money every month from abroad.”
There’s truth behind every joke. Family and migration have always been important support networks for Syrians, who rely on one another, and this relationship has only grown as the conflict continues.
More seriously, the war in Syria, now in its 13th year, remains one of the major crises of today. It has led to the death of nearly half a million people, displaced half of its prewar population, leading to the largest exodus in our time. The protracted conflict has also influenced the discourse around migrant rights and political polarization that we are seeing play out, from South America to Australia and everywhere in between.
Upon reflection from my fieldwork, the larger issues that I had applied to research stand out to me less than the time I spent hearing personal stories from Syrians transitioning to refugee or resident. In Turkey, I met with journalists and merchants, hustlers benefitting from mass displacement, young men dodging military conscription, Syrians trying to integrate into an area that not so long ago was considered their own, and Syrian seasonal workers keeping afloat the country’s agriculture sector while being scapegoated for taking jobs. In Jordan, I met students aiming to go to university, despite the barriers stacked against them, and in Lebanon, I watched as Syrians refused to leave their homes as a series of military raids and political campaigns sought to kick Syrians out of the country.
I spent time in older, diaspora communities that were established before the outbreak of war, such as Syrian professionals who moved in the twentieth century to the Arab Gulf region in search of economic prosperity. I also engaged with more recent social circles, where the narrative, boundaries, and place of the newcomers have yet to emerge.
Demography was another factor I looked into during my research. Throughout the Syrian conflict, the United Nations and other aid actors have understandably tried to prioritize at-risk groups, namely women and youth, for protection and assistance. However, they have seemed to miss the dangers faced by ageing refugees simultaneously reeling from conflict, language barriers, ageism, and chronic health conditions. Even in conversations with some of the most privileged of these Syrian elders, it is clear they face isolation, exclusion and a deeply fractured sense of self. Retirees weren’t immune to a rising wave of xenophobia either.
One Syrian elder recounted being accosted by a Turkish woman while sitting outside at a café enjoying her afternoon coffee: “She screamed at me, ‘You are Syrian? How can you sit here and have a coffee while we suffer?’” the lady recounted at Mediterranean port city in Turkey. One imagines that, to the harasser, this woman and her cup of coffee did not fit the archetype of Syrians fleeing war. In the absence of education and understanding of the many reasons behind migration, misinformation and prejudice all too quickly can fill the void.
I also spent time with minority groups within the larger diaspora, a reflection that social dynamics can persist even after crossing borders. I met with LGBTQ+ Syrians searching to be safe and to be seen in the queer scene in Berlin, those who were seen by society as Armenians back in Syria and now as Syrians in their new home in Armenia, and Syrian Jews who were not seen at all in their own country and also not seen at all in their new one.
Throughout my fellowship, there are several truths that have stuck with the displaced Syrian community. There’s a tendency to view integration as an either-or phenomenon. But all of them have faced challenges in their transition, navigating new languages, new lands, new limitations. For the majority, they remain stuck in a kind of extended limbo, unwanted by the country they’re in, unable to move on and unable or unwilling to go back.
In the final six months of my fellowship, I spent time on the Turkish-Syrian border, focused on more recent loss and tragedy for a people that have faced more than enough. I visited southern Turkey a few weeks before the February earthquakes that hit there, and then immediately after, where the majority of Syrian refugees in Turkey live.
I observed how a government responds to a historical crisis and to whom they give priority. I also observed how tragedy can push a local population further toward nativism. This renewed displacement led to double forms of discrimination, which then bled into Turkey’s nasty presidential and parliamentary campaign where Syrians were put front and center, being blamed for the country’s economic collapse and change in demographic character, while being preemptively held liable ahead of time in case of any potential election fraud.
Syrian women in the earthquake zone face additional risks that hinder them from seeking assistance or accessing facilities. Even if the earthquake was natural, the response is political. Gender-blind development policies will leave them and other segments of society behind.
In many ways, this morass has only gotten muddier since I started my research. New deals are being made with autocrats, warlords, and strongmen to keep Syrians and other migrants away from European shores. Frontex, which aims to securitize the border, is the fastest growing agency in the EU. Syrians are no longer heading in large numbers to Europe as they did in 2014. There appears to be a lack of interest in what is happening to them as long as they are kept at a distance.
However, it took a subsequent historic tragedy to force the world to stop ignoring Syrians, even if provisionally. After the earthquake, the United States temporarily eased sanctions on Syria to accelerate humanitarian aid to the country’s northwest. Berlin allowed Turkish and Syrian residents there to temporarily bring their displaced relatives from the earthquake areas to Germany.
Still, in the United States, the administration is largely pursuing a policy of passive neglect. In countries hosting large numbers of Syrians, rising hostilities and organized campaigns are increasingly calling for them to be returned back, from the failed state of Lebanon to the very stable Denmark. The UN has slashed assistance to Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon this year, citing funding shortfalls.
Syria now very much exists beyond its borders, but let us briefly take a look inside the country. As in all conflicts, if you wait long enough, heresy eventually sounds like gospel. The growing calls to bring Syrian president Bashar al-Assad back into the fold has shocked Syrians, stupefied analysts, and silenced Western governments. I will let my co panelists focus more on the situation inside Syria, but I just want to point out that the protracted instability displaced Syrians contend with is a result of the ongoing failed political settlement inside Syria. This stasis also contributes to the dire economic situation playing out in the country, pushing young people to want to leave and find their future elsewhere, burying any hopes of the country turning a corner anytime soon.
Despite this, more attention, not less, is required from the halls of power here and elsewhere if we hope to change that. If not, conflict will beget conflict, and only lead to more displacement and despair.
Today, over 60 percent of Syrians are displaced from their homes. In Turkey, where the largest number of them live, several policy changes can provide immediate relief to host society and refugee community alike. Just as the US has recently afforded new rights for certain migrants on the eligibility to work, more can be done to help Syrians in Turkey
For instance, if Syrians are given a more structured pathway to formal employment, they can contribute more to Turkey’s economy. Employment is recognized as a driver of integration. As of now, employers must bear the costs of hiring Syrians, and are often reluctant to do so, giving birth to predatory practices that keep Syrians off the books and undercut wages for everyone. The opposite can protect Syrians and assuage working class Turks’ concerns about Syrians stealing jobs or evading taxes. Secondly, Syrians under temporary protection are currently restricted from leaving the province they are registered in, but they ought be able to move around the country to be able to better match their personal preferences and employment opportunities. Thirdly, after years of limbo under temporary protection, Syrians should finally be allowed to apply for medium- to long-term residency in Turkey to encourage their socioeconomic integration. A similar policy has recently been adopted in Colombia regarding displaced Venezuelans there. This process can start with Syrian children born in Turkey who are de facto stateless.
And while the policies above are measured, reasonable, and can reduce tensions, it is important to not forget that people are people. They do not need to first serve a utilitarian purpose for host societies to provide them with necessary protections.
These days, stories can be more persuasive than statistics. Facts are effective if they form part of a larger narrative, so I wanted to conclude speaking about one family I became particularly close with over my fellowship. My friend Mohammad and his children, like millions of others, have been zigzagging between and within countries to try to build a sense of stability for much of the last decade.
We met him over two years ago in Antakya in southern Turkey and hit it off. We grew close and learned that his eldest son had been killed back in Syria by ISIS. During the February 6th earthquakes, they had been thrashed from side to side before the entire building split into two. Unfortunately their second son died, buried in the rubble. He had been a 17 year old volunteer with the Red Cross. After they recovered his body, they then tried to go to nearby Tarsus, but were refused shelter so they moved to the Mediterranean city of Mersin until their money ran out. They slept in a nearby train station and then went to a temporary shelter erected by a relative in a neighboring city. Eventually the family made it to Istanbul at the end of February, where they have stayed for the last 7 months. In their basement apartment, I have seen them deal with a lot. They have coped with the loss of their sons and panicked over a doomsday prediction of another earthquake to hit Istanbul. They witnessed war, political and economic collapse back in Syria, a once in a lifetime natural disaster, and subsequent political and economic crises in Turkey, including election hysteria and its fallout in terms of a crackdown against migrants.
During a visit in October, their apartment smelled of ammonia. The entire family had dyed their hair blonde. “We want to look more French,” Mohammad said.
After four years of radio silence, the French government had finally invited them for an in-person interview to determine if they could be resettled there. And, in some good news, last month, Mohammad told me they had been accepted and would be moving to France in December.
As we spoke, his two little daughters dangled their feet off their chairs and repeated each time a French woman enunciated “C’est bon!” over and over on her YouTube language channel. “C’est bon” Mohammad told me, smiling over the fact that his daughters can finally stop running. “C’est bon,” we all said together. France would offer a new set of challenges, but after living through enough suffering for several lifetimes, something good had happened for this one family. Still, there are more than 5 million Syrians who are in Turkey and neighboring countries, and even more displaced inside Syria. Their happy endings have yet to come.
The Syrian context and its diaspora are not being helped by the increasing polarization of societies worldwide. And while there is sympathy to the situation of Syrians, their case is a testament to a larger dynamic. Our world is a more mobile place than it ever has been before, and these trends are only on the rise. The experience of the Syrian diaspora has lessons that can be applied to other migration contexts, including here in the US.
Again, I want to thank ICWA for the opportunity to study displacement and conflict and for you all for listening to me this morning. I will continue to work on these topics moving forward, and I believe I am better off for it.