Syria is one of the ‘biggest jobs in international diplomacy today’ Professor Hinnebusch proclaims. Chairing the St. Andrews for Syria panel discussion last Friday, the professor of IR and head of the Syrian Centre in St Andrews provided an insightful introduction to the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today. It is easy to sit back and think that this is something that doesn’t affect us, but it has created waves throughout the world, most notably in the refugee crisis.
St. Andrews for Syria, was a unique collaboration that brought together a number of societies in St Andrews: Amina, Save the Children, UNICEF, Foreign Affairs Society, History Society, Oxfam and the School of Modern Languages. To raise awareness of the current humanitarian and political crisis in Syria, whilst raising money for the White Helmets, the first responders who have saved the lives of 62,000 people. Each speaker remarked with surprise, the sheer volume of students who had turned out to the Buchanan Lecture theatre, on a Friday no less. It put a Thursday morning lecture to shame. It was heart-warming to see a lecture hall full of students, keen to be informed and to support this crisis.
Experts had been brought from as far away as Turkey, to offer insightful takes on multiple aspects of the Syrian conflict. The first speaker Dr Idrees Ahmad, a lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and the author of The Road to Iraq, presented an insightful commentary on the War of Narratives. ‘Bad information leads to bad policy’ was the thought provoking tagline of the debate that explored the issues of misrepresentation of information in the Media. Examining the perils of embedded journalism and sensationalist opinion pieces, the audience was encouraged to question the quality of the journalism that has been pivotal in forming our opinions on Syria, especially in relation to the refugee crisis.
The refugee crisis was the issue that pervaded the discussions. Each speaker dispelled the myth of the economic migrant, and pointed out that ‘most refugees left Syria because of the war, and nearly all want to return home’. Dr Jasmine Gani, a member of the School of International Relations here in St. Andrews and author of ‘The Role of Ideology in Syrian-US Relations: Conflict and Cooperation’, presented an emotive discussion, that questioned how we in Europe view refugees. Why is it we refer to them as refugees as they move towards our borders? When did they cease to be individual human beings in need of help? This was a theme that the final speaker Alasdair Gordon-Gibson, picked up on. Working for the International Red Cross for the last twenty years, he has seen first hand the effect that war has had on the displacement of individuals. ‘We have to hope there is a kernel of humanity to rescue’ he explained, as he addressed the cynical controversy surrounding humanitarian aid. Humanitarian aid maybe dysfunctional at the moment, but it doesn’t mean we should abandon it, more than anything it should be supported, to help find better ways to work through the systems available.
The highlight of the night was the uplifting presentation from Dr Ayman Al-Yassini, on Canada’s successful resettlement program for refugees. Dr Al-Yassini, is RSD Expert with the UNHCR in Ankara, Turkey. Over the years, he has served the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) as Member, Coordinating Member, and Special Advisor to the Deputy Chair. He has first hand experience of interacting with Syrian refugees. With tears in his eyes, he remembered when one of his colleagues was asked by a refugee to conduct his immigration interview in Turkish, so that his son would not get distressed when he remembered the destruction they had fled. Canada’s immigration program not only effectively transported over 25,000 people to Canada in the first few months, but provided a welcoming atmosphere for them to arrive into. Communities are encouraged to get involve with settling refugees, the effects of this have been magnified by the use of private sponsorships to support a refugee. Dr Al-Yassini, acknowledges the difficulties that still lie ahead for the long-term planning of resettlement, but is a challenge that Canada, unlike other European countries, is ready to face head on. ‘Canada is a country of refugees, the decision to accept refugees reflects who we are. Syria is only one crisis, this is an ongoing problem, don’t forget the other refugees.’
The panel discussion that tied up the evening, saw a surprising degree of consensus among the speakers. Syria is not something we can ignore. The people it is displacing are not to be seen as the feared ‘refugee crisis’, they want to help themselves, they want to return home, but they need our help to do this.