With Syrian Refugees, America Should Lead By Example

Syrian refugees

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November 27, 2015 19:54 EDT

Instead of leading by example, the US is falling prey to a cynical worldview that would see children as an enemy and powerless families as groups of terrorists.

Citizens in Virginia, United States, should be proud of Governor Terry McAuliffe’s decision to support refugee resettlement in the commonwealth—especially those fleeing the violence in Iraq and Syria.

I was not only in Iraq when the Islamic State (IS) exploded out of Mosul, but can also personally attest to the kinds of violence and brutality that some of these refugees have experienced. Nothing I write will ever adequately describe the chaos left in their wake.

During the summer of 2014, I was living and working in Baghdad while IS overran northern Iraq and made its way toward the capital city. My colleagues and I watched in horror as a marauding army of fanatics, psychopaths and jihadist adventurers summarily executed everyone who posed a threat to the establishment of their so-called caliphate. Victims included men, women and children, along with anyone who might have played a role in Iraqi civil society: politicians, activists, doctors, journalists, as well as religious minorities who were singled out for extermination.

In the span of four days, we watched IS erase the border with Syria, slaughter what remained of the Iraqi army and destroy the existing geopolitical order in the Middle East—only a mere 50 miles up the road from our villa in Baghdad.

The tension and stress my colleagues and I experienced during that week was unlike anything we had experienced to that point—and we were incredibly skilled security and intelligence professionals.

Being in Baghdad while IS rampaged through Iraq has become one of the defining experiences of my life and career. Fortunately for me, I was able to relocate out of the capital and eventually find safety somewhere else.

The same cannot be said for the millions of refugees and internally displaced who are stuck in a purgatorial no man’s land—pinned between the violence they’re fleeing and the paranoia that’s preventing us from helping people who are escaping some of the worst atrocities on the planet. Just watch any IS propaganda video to see what I mean. And this is exactly what IS wants.

Children As Our Enemy?

As an intelligence analyst in Iraq, I witnessed IS engage in this same endless strategy: dividing people, sect and faction by using fear to turn them against one another through a cycle of mistrust and suspicion.

This is a primary factor contributing to the militant group’s success and longevity. Its goal always has been to create a perception that Muslims are being persecuted, which provides a justification for their violence and terrorism.

Denying assistance to largely Muslim refugees is an ideological ambush of our own making, one we’re walking straight into. It not only reinforces a crucial component of the Islamic State’s message, but also is critical for its ability to recruit would-be supporters, militants and suicide bombers—much like those who conducted the Paris attacks.

The Islamic State will never be defeated by closed borders, bombs or bullets. We will not defeat it by entrenching ourselves into political positions based on fear and antipathy. Furthermore, the attackers in Paris were not refugees, but French and Belgian citizens.

To confuse these two things is to lose sight of where the real threat is coming from. This war is an ideological war. For us to win, we cannot resort to the same tactics that have legitimized IS’ own narrative. Even after the tragedy in Paris, the French have committed to taking 30,000 refugees. We should be humbled by this magnanimous gesture.

Yet instead of leading by example, we are falling prey to a cynical worldview that would see children as our enemy and powerless families as groups of terrorists. Our security concerns are entirely valid, but they must also be weighed against a broader political agenda that can be flexible enough to accommodate those who need our assistance without being obstructed by the politics of fear.

Maybe one day our politicians and pundits will have an opportunity to see this kind of violence firsthand. They may still claim that refugees are a national security threat. Or they may learn from their experience and understand what it is like to be a stranger in a foreign land, divorced from home, family and culture while relying entirely on the charity of others.

Until then, we should try live up to the very best of who we are, which doesn’t include disparaging the most vulnerable of those among us.

Should Iraqi or Syrian refugees be resettled in Virginia, I will be one of the very first to greet them and repay them with the same kindness they showed me when I was a stranger in their country.

*[This article was originally published by Style Weekly.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Orlok /

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