Displacement and Identity: Exploring Syrian Refugees’ Lived Experiences

By Basileus Zeno, University of Massachusetts

*This memo was originally drafted as a part of the Refugees and Migration Movements in the Middle East workshop organized in collaboration with POMEPS and the Center for Middle East Studies at USC and held at University of Southern California on February 2-3, 2017. POMEPS Studies 25 is a collection of their memos from this workshop, available as an open-access PDF here.

Since the Arab uprisings of 2011, the perception of national identity among Syrians has changed radically. Many factors have contributed to this: the country became de facto divided among different groups; thousands of non-Syrian jihadists, such as the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (also known as ISIS), have succeeded in controlling large swaths of Syria and Iraq; and sectarian tensions among different segments of Syrian society have intensified with the increasing intervention of regional and global powers. By the end of 2015, an estimated 11.5 percent of the population of Syrian were dead— 23 million killed or injured due to armed-conflict. More than 4.8 million Syrians have fled the country, and rough estimates show that over 7.6 million Syrians are now internally displaced persons (IDPs) within the country.[2] More than 80 percent of the Syrian population is living below the poverty line. In terms of education, the “national ratio of enrolment in primary education fell from 98 percent in 2010 to 70 percent in 2013 and further to 61.5 per cent in 2015.”[3] These numbers foretell a grim future. Structural challenges make any post-conflict reconstruction plans at the macro-level seems implausible in the short-run. At the micro-level, the lived experience of refugees, asylum grantees, and IDPs vary dramatically from one place to another based on where they are located. In many cases they have been displaced several times, which further complicates any planning to reweave anything that could be seriously described as a Syrian social fabric.

In this memo, I focus on “humiliation” and “dignity” as crucial aspects of the lived experience of Syrian refugees. This research is based on ethnographic fieldwork and ordinary language interviews[4] in the United States, and semi-structured, open-ended interviews with Syrians in Germany and Turkey.[5]

The Syrian People Will Not Be Humiliated

In December 2010, the Arab world was about to witness a series of massive, contagious social movements which would sweep across Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Morocco, Syria and other Arab countries, toppling, albeit in different ways, authoritarian leaders including Zine El Abidine Bin Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, and Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya. In almost all cases, the initial waves of peaceful protest were confronted by lethal attacks and suppression by oppressive regimes, and, in Libya, Yemen and Syria, turned into armed confrontation and eventually proxy wars leading to unprecedented waves of refugees.

On March 15, 2011, a group of young activists organized a demonstration in Damascus, chanting, “God, Syria, Freedom and that’s enough/ Allah, Souriya, Houriya w Bas,” a slogan that defied the Baathist slogan: “God, Syria, Bashar and that’s enough/ Allah, Souriya, Bashar w Bas.” Many Syrian activists consider that moment to mark the birth of the “Syrian Revolution.” Others mark the birthdate three days later, when the first activists— since known as “martyrs of the revolution”— died in southern Syria.[6] These protests followed a series of protests by Syrians in solidarity with the Libyan and the Egyptian people. A month earlier, on February 17, 2011, an unexpected incident happened in Damascus: a police officer brutally assaulted the son of a shop owner in the Souq al-Hariqa market. Within minutes, hundreds of Syrians gathered to protest against the security forces and shouted together, “Thieves Thieves/Haramiyeh Haramieh” and “The Syrian people will not be humiliated/al-Sha’ab al-Souri ma Biiynthal,” a slogan that would become popular later.[7] The minister of the interior halted the protest by promising the offending officer would be punished. Nevertheless, within hours, the video of the demonstration went viral on YouTube and Facebook.

The reason why I am referring to this slogan, “The Syrian people will not be humiliated,” is that many of my interviewees described the category of “refugee” as a “humiliating” designation, and activists/refugees in particular frequently cited that slogan as an expression of the primary motive to protest against the Syrian regime. As Reem, an activist pending asylum in the United States, puts it:

…the protest of al-Hariqa was like a scream inside the heart of every Syrian who lived in fear and had been humiliated by the mukhabarat [security forces] for decades under both Assads. I wasn’t there but when I watched the video on YouTube and heard the people chanting The Syrian People will not be Humiliated, I felt wow! I am a human being and I am proud to be Syrian. Don’t forget the timing as we were already inspired by Bouazizi, but now we are back to square one, humiliated in our country and humiliated outside it.[8]

When I asked another activist, Yasmeen, working with a non-violent movement based in Gaziantep, Turkey, “What does it mean for you to be a Syrian?” she remained silenced for a while before answering:

Well… I do not really know. It is a difficult question. You know I feel guilty and ashamed of being Syrian nowadays. The country has been destroyed after the revolution. I will tell you a personal example. I was lost the other day in Gaziantep. I asked a Turkish officer at the metro station about directions. He asked me about my nationality. I kept silent! I ignored his question because I thought I would be stigmatized by him if he knew I am Syrian.[9]

Yasmeen and her sister have been refugees in Germany since June 2015. When I asked her about her new experience, she said:

I didn’t like Gaziantep because it was a conservative city in general, but I loved Istanbul. It’s my favorite city, but at the time Syrians didn’t have a clear legal status… I needed documents, I mean a non-Syrian passport because I couldn’t travel or do anything, this is why I decided to register at the UNHCR center on January 2014[…] Here, I have health insurance, I am learning the language but I hate the word refugee in German, it provokes me…why do you insist in reminding me that I am a refugee?…You don’t feel they treat you as equal and they look down on you [10]

Similarly, Suleiman, a refugee who was resettled with his family in Massachusetts, doesn’t feel comfortable when he hears the word refugee:

No one wants to be a refugee. I even hate the word refugee or the fact that my children are refugees and that I had to flee from my country because we have someone who is killing the people and no one is stopping him! If you want to solve the refugee crisis, don’t give me bread— stop the fire in my farm.[11]

This sense of humiliation and the negative connotation that some refugees attributed to the category of refugee shouldn’t, however, be reduced to a passive feeling or a ‘generalizable’ permanent characteristic of the experience of being a refugee. In fact, several interviewees treated humiliation dialectally by demonstrating pride in what they stood for— especially activists who frequently referred to the Syrian uprising as Thawrat al-Karama (Dignity Revolution); or in who they are by referring to Syria’s ancient history; or the hospitality of many Syrians towards other refugees in the past. While Suleiman, whom I quoted above, hates the category of refugee, he substituted it for another word in Arabic: daif (guest). This linguistic shift reflects his personal experience at the individual level, and the Syrian experience at the state level, with other refugees (Palestinian, Iraqis, and Lebanese) who fled the wars and came to Syria. According to Suleiman:

We are not refugees, we are guests. We came to America and America opened its heart to us and supported us, we want to be here positive [actors] for America[…]I want to work and do good things and to be integrated in the American society, and to transfer our Arabic civilization to the U.S.[12]

In contrast to what the category of refugee implies (finding a new permanent home), daif signifies a feeling of temporality, expressing the desire among many Syrian refugees to believe that their time in exile is limited and once the war ends they will return “home.”

Speaking from my own experience as a Syrian in exile and as a social scientist, any attempt to study the processes of identity-formation among Syrians post-2011 and of how refugees themselves understand their displacement risks compounding the tremendous semantic violence refugees experience. To minimize this risk, it is imperative that these processes be approached in a manner that is attuned to the lived-experience of Syrians before and after the uprising, the web of meanings Syrians have themselves constructed through Syria’s contemporary history.

The Visible “Other”

The massive populations of Syrian refugees in Syria’s neighboring countries were effectively invisible in the Western media between 2011 and 2014. This reflects Hannah Arendt’s observation that “the more the number of rightless people increased, the greater became the temptation to pay less attention to the deeds of the persecuting governments than to the status of the persecuted.”[13] Comparing to Syria`s neighboring countries, only slightly more than 10 percent of the total number of registered Syrian refugees sought asylum in Europe— yet the visibility of the Syrian refugee crisis as experienced by Western countries was exaggerated in media and political platforms, including the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. [14] Attention from European and American politicians, policy-makers and NGOs increased significantly after the images of the lifeless body of three-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, made global headlines after he drowned on September 2, 2015. The images (Figure 1) galvanized public attention to a grim crisis and motivated several humanitarian organizations, aid charities and individuals to volunteer to support the new Mediterranean Sea arrivals to the Greek islands.[15]

Figure 1:

Many activists and organizations appealed to the “sense of humanity” and mobilized the imagined human community to help the powerless and poor “other.” Refugees, asylees, and migrants are categories that designate homogenized groups that are represented as territorially and culturally uprooted. Ethnographer Liisa Malkki aptly criticizes such categorical mystification that rests on old essentialist and reductionist Eurocentric practices:

The universalism of the “Family of Man” depoliticizes fundamental inequalities and injustices in the same manner that the homogenizing, humanitarian images of refugees work to obscure their actual sociopolitical circumstance- erasing the specific, historical, local politics of particular refugees, and retreating instead to the depoliticizing, dehistoricizing register of a more abstract and universal suffering.[16]

The media attention tended to focus on Syrian refugees, but conflated refugees and migrants, and barely mentioned other nationalities or the larger numbers of refugees in non-European countries.[17] The representation of the Syrian refugees, after the photo of Aylan went viral, focused on women and children as helpless, passive, and voiceless victims of violence and brutality. Despite the liberal pride of the universality of human rights, and the increasingly interconnected and globalized world, the perception of “human” and “culture” are highly territorialized and still rooted the nation-state order. The instantaneous discursive shift “against” refugees, and Syrians in particular, following the November 2015 attacks in Paris showcases how the anti-refugee stance is arguably the norm and not the exception.

The dominant media coverage and political discourse, particularly in the United States, shifted dramatically to demonize refugees and tout their potential as a grave security threat to the West. This discourse was clear when, less than two months before the U.S. presidential election, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted an image comparing Syria refugees to a popular candy, implying there were dangerous terrorists gaining entry into the United States as refugees.

Figure 2: Screenshot of (anti-Syrian refugees) post tweeted by Donald Trump Jr., September 19, 2016.

Less than a year before Trump Jr.’s tweet, the governors of 31 states (30 Republicans and 1 Democrat), all, but one, issued statements saying they would bar Syrian refugees from settling in their states due to security concerns fueled by ISIS attacks in Paris.[18] While the governors’ statements were polemical rather than legal— as the federal refugee program officials formally rejected their statements[19]— they contributed to normalizing xenophobic and anti-refugee rhetoric. Based on my interviews and my own experience, Syrian refugees and asylees in the United States have been feeling increasingly insecure and in a defensive position.

Humiliation, dignity, fear, sense of loss, sense of betrayal, insecurity, alienation, dislocation and inability to mourn are crucial to the identity-formation and meaning-making processes of refugees, and they pose methodological challenges and can only be partially represented by quantified data. Such challenges must be reckoned with by researchers who seek to gain in-depth insights into processes of resettlement and integration in hosting countries on the one hand; and how to approach post-conflict reconstruction planning concerning Syrian social fabric on the other.

Basileus Zeno is a Syrian archaeologist and a doctoral student in Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He also serves as a Syria Page Co-Editor for Jadaliyya.

[1] This memo is an excerpt of a larger ongoing project that examines meaning-making processes among Syrian refugees in exile and how statelessness is becoming integrated into many Syrians’ identity.

[2] UNHCR, September, 2016; SCPR, February 2016, p.8.

[3] United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), (2016). Syria at War: Five Years On. Retrieved December 28, 2016 from https://www.unescwa.org/publications/syria-war-five-years

[4] “Ordinary language is a tool for uncovering the meaning of words in everyday talk,” please see Schaffer, F. C. (2006). Ordinary language interviewing. In D. Yanow and P. Schwartz-Shea, (Eds.), Interpretation and method: Empirical research methods and the interpretive turn. Armonk, N.Y: M.E. Sharpe. p.151.

[5] Due to the restriction on my travel as a Syrian researcher and pending asylee (since 2013), I wasn’t able to travel to Turkey and Germany to conduct ethnographic fieldworks and I had to depend on interviews via Skype with my participants in both countries, which, in itself, is an indicator of methodological challenges that confront Syrian researchers.

[6] Based on meetings and discussions with activists in Damascus on March and April 2011. I heard the same varied answers during my interviews with Syrian activists in Washington D.C on August 8, August 11, and August 12, 2014. One young activist who attended the March 15 protest distinguished between the two dates as follows: “The protest of Souq al-Hamidiyeh [March 15] was organized by activists who were inspired by the Arab Spring, whereas the protests in Dar’a [March 18] were more spontaneous and led by ordinary people who wanted their children to be released immediately from Assad’s prison.”

[7] The video of the protest of Souq al-Hariqa is available on the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NykGjfKn3TU

[8]Mohamed Bouazizi, was a Tunisian college-educated street cart vendor, whose self-immolation in December 2010 (three months before the Syrian Uprising) sparked the wave of Arab protests.

Interview with Reem, Washington D.C, USA, August 8, 2014.

[9] Skype interview with Yasmeen when she was in Gaziantep, southern Turkey, on September, 2, 2015.

[10] Skype interview with Yasmeen, Augsburg, Germany, on January, 22, 2016.

[11] Participant observation in West Springfield, MA, USA, on October 6, 2016.

[12] Participant observation in West Springfield, MA, USA, on October 6, 2016.

[13] Arendt, H. (1973). The origins of totalitarianism (Vol. 244). New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  p. 294.

[14] Reliefweb. (2016, February 11). Europe: Syrian Asylum Applications From Apr 2011 to Feb 2016 (EU+ Countries Including Norway and Switzerland). Retrieved October 23, 2016 from  http://reliefweb.int/report/world/europe-syrian-asylum-applications-apr-2011-feb-2016-eu-countries-including-norway-and

[15] According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the top eight nationalities of the over one million Mediterranean Sea arrivals between January 2015 and March 2016 were Syrian Syria Arab Republic (46.7%), Afghanistan (20.9%), Iraq (9.4%), Eritrea (3.4%), Pakistan (2.5%), Iran (2.3), Nigeria (2.2%), Somalia (1.2%). Retrieved September 20, 2016 from http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/documents.php?page=1&view=grid&Type%5B%5D=3&Search=%23monthly%23

[16] Malkki, L. H. (1995). Purity and exile: Violence, memory, and national cosmology among Hutu refugees in Tanzania. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. p. 13.

[17] By the end of 2015, “An unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from home,” in other words, one out of every 113 people on Earth. Figures at a Glance, (UNHCR), Retrieved September 18, 2016 from http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html

[18] CNN, November, 19, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/16/world/paris-attacks-syrian-refugees-backlash/

[19] Carey, R. (2015, November 25). Resettlement of Syrian Refugees, Dear Colleague Letter 16-02. Office of Refugee Resettlement. Retrieved September 17, 2015 from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/resource/resettlement-of-syrian-refugees