She grew up running through the streets of Damascus, surrounded by family and friends. Now, the streets she walked on as a young girl are minefields, covered in rubble from bombings and explosions. Palmyra, a place she visited often in her youth, lays in ruin, destroyed by the fights of the Islamic State group.
Many of her family members still reside in Syria.
Once, while speaking with her family over the phone, the line dropped. She assumed the connection had just been lost, as was usual.
“Usually they call right back if this happens, but I waited about half an hour,” said Haya Ajjan, assistant professor of management information systems at Elon University. “They said to me, ‘Did you hear the explosion when we were on the phone?’ The explosion was so strong it shattered their window. They just said, ‘We were lucky this time.’ This is the fear I live through every day.”
While Ajjan’s family is still internally displaced in Syria, 4 million people have fled the country for neighboring ones and now for Europe, which is facing a migration crisis. More than 460,000 refugees and migrants have traveled across the Mediterranean this year. Of that number, 99 percent have arrived on the shores of Greece and Italy, according to the latest statistics from the International Organization for Migration.
On Sept. 16, Elon University hosted a forum for community members to ask questions and educate themselves about the refugee crisis, its causes, how European nations and the United States are responding, and the process for seeking asylum.
The forum featured Ajjan and three other panelists who have studied immigration, human rights and politics regarding the two, including the language used to describe those crossing the Mediterranean.
“There are four terms to describe what is going on in Europe today,” said Niklaus Steiner, director of the Center for Global Initiatives at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “The first term is migrants. The second is refugee. The third is immigrants, and fourth is asylum seekers.”
Steiner explained the word "migrant" as a general term that is then broken down into two subcategories: immigrants and refugees. Within the category of refugees are asylum seekers, people who want to permanently become part of a new society because they are being persecuted for their beliefs in their home country.
European nations have not historically been comprised of immigrants like the United States, Canada or Australia. They will help refugees but would prefer not to house asylum seekers and immigrants. The problem in Europe now, according to Steiner, is that it sees the refugees entering the European Union (EU) as migrants looking for a better life economically.
Albert Waters, an Elon senior who lived in Italy for five years and studied abroad in Jordan, echoed the same sentiment.
“A lot of [Italians] think their problems are much bigger than what’s going on,” he said. “Governments want to call them economic migrants, but the reality is that people are fleeing their countries for the safety of their families.”
ome countries, such as Germany, have opened their borders to refugees. Germany is on track to receive more than 1 million asylum applications this year, prompting the government to temporarily increase border control.
“Germany has a demographic crisis,” said Safia Swimelar, an associate professor of political science and policy studies at Elon whose research has focused on the Balkans, which faced its own refugee crisis in the early 1990s. “There are not enough people to keep the economy going. And the refugees coming are educated, not uneducated like many think.”
Europeans are now turning to the United States for help. For a country that has historically been the most accepting of refugees and asylum seekers, the United States has taken in fewer than 1,000 Syrian refugees. Recently, President Obama announced the United States would accept 10,000 Syrian refugees during the next fiscal year.
But Swimelar said the United States can do better than that.
“Our country is so big,” she said. “There are so many towns that are great places for refugees, like Lincoln, Nebraska. And bringing in refugees helps the economy, it doesn’t drain it. It brings in opportunity. We have to tell the Obama administration and our Senators that 10,000 is not enough. We need to bring in more.”
Extending a helping hand
When senior Ashleigh McGrath studied in Amman, Jordan, last spring, she had an idea of how bad the refugee situation was. She worked with and met refugees, which changed her perspectives on international humanitarian aid.
“There was a family of nine that had been sponsored by the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees],” she said. “And the money just stopped coming. It made me more cynical of international organizations.”
McGrath met this family while she was in the northern part of Jordan visiting a village that had taken in Syrian refugees, giving them a life that she said is much more comfortable than the camps they would be in otherwise.
Jan Fuller, university chaplain, has a similar idea in mind.
As the conversation in McBride came to a close, Fuller announced a plan for the Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life to help resettle Syrians.
“Our hope is to serve people who are being resettled in the U.S.,” she said. “This crisis is going to go on for a long time, and we have plans for immediate, small things to do, and then services that we may be able to develop based on other models done in other places.”
Fuller wants students to take charge of the idea and turn it into a campus-wide effort. In the next few days, she plans to gather all of those interested to being planning what this effort might look like.
“We know that the thing we cannot afford to do is nothing,” she said. “And over the past two years and in the past weeks, some of us have shaken our heads, and our hearts are breaking for other members of the human race who are in these terrible situations.”
Two years ago in the same space in the Numen Lumen Pavilion, faculty members — including Ajjan — spoke about the worsening crisis in Syria. And in April 2013, Syrian-Americans and a representative of the Syrian Opposition Coalition discussed how the crisis would end.
Two years later, not much has changed.
“I’m still wondering, why doesn’t the world see Syrians?” Ajjan said. “What does it take for them to notice us?”