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Mikaela Luttrell-Rowland Headshot

Syria and Forced Migration: The World Stands Witness

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News this week from Syria contains images and reports of people shot and killed. Violence in a civil war continues. Thousands of families and individuals are fleeing the country in search of safety. President Obama posted a YouTube video this week noting the $155 US million to aid Syrian refugees, and outlined the goods for which the money will be allocated.

His bottom line: American aid -- Blankets, boots, and stoves.

Fundamental, tangible, material items for this next phase of those seeking refuge. He spoke primarily about internal refugees, but there are, of course, many who are leaving the country as well. News reports cite that there are currently more than two million displaced peoples within Syria, and 700,000 Syrians who have found shelter in neighboring countries.

As I read about the ongoing violence, and the flight and forced refugee status of over two million people, several questions jump out at me. While I applaud the concrete plans for and allocations of American aid, I worry about the on-going impact of this violence that aid money cannot touch: Like, for example, trauma from death and violence, disrupted and fractured education, and widespread fear.

In the short-term, it makes sense to support concrete and practical aid. Forced migration does, after all, present concrete and practical problems. But while Syrian temporary and permanent resettlement occurs, will more difficult questions claim center stage?

Questions not just about raising money for caravans instead of tents (here, the weather is the central focus), but rather why people are being forced into the cold in the first place. Questions about everyday and long-term effects of this violence. And questions about when stability will take hold, and what will come next.

Political questions, and questions that concern interests and actors beyond the Syrian refugees.

As hundreds of thousands families enter Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey, and as they attempt to establish new lives, mainstream US media relies on a limited narrative about Syria. A dichotomy is presented daily: women and children are flashed and interviewed as the victims, the refugees, the mourners. And men are quoted and pictured as the people with the bombs, involved in shootings, the agents of violence.

So: we speak about humanitarian aid and the vulnerable, and we learn about mass-violence in one specific location. Yet the media do not link what is happening in Syria to larger questions of global politics. And, the risk, therefore, is that neither do we.

We are witnessing a critical moment in Syria. Yes, let us focus on the material and everyday questions of ongoing violence and forced migration: tents, blankets, water, and food. But let us not use the focus on aid as an excuse to avoid identifying the interconnected, regional, and global factors at work. I would like to hear more about the global arms trade. I would like to hear more about the role of, and control over, natural resources. And I would like to see a more sophisticated gender analysis.

One of the most enlightening and vivid books on forced refugee politics is Flight From the Reich by Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt. They raise this issue of which questions get brought to the forefront of popular knowledge (or history), and which stories are left aside.

Their book reminds us of the histories of Nazi era Jewish refugees--and the far-flung, reconstructed lives of those who managed to live. Often ignored or left out in the story of the Holocaust, Dwork and van Pelt give voice to the refugees from 1933 through the post-war period. The book begins with the most famous refugee Jew, Anne Frank. Her refugee status often forgotten, or left out of the historical re-telling, as it was for many.

But the fact that she was a refugee mattered for Frank's experience. As it matters for all the refugees that Dwork and van Pelt bring to life. And they remind us, through this historical re-telling, that while the material everyday details are crucial--undeniably crucial--so are the larger political, global patterns, and historical facts. Both, and at the same time.

So as we hear about and stand witness to the on-going violence and war in Syria, let us not allow the forced refugee status of millions go unnoticed. Nor let us shy away from, or get away with not talking about, the larger meanings, implications, and interests at stake.

We are living history.