Moving Beyond the Label of ‘War Refugee’


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In August 2015, Suhair and her children, Naela, then 26, Maisam, 19, and Yousef, 13, fled Syria to reunite with her daughter Souad, 22, risking a dangerous journey across 15 miles of the Aegean Sea in a motor-powered inflatable raft. They had one main goal: to all live together again in safety. They were willing to bear the many indignities that would come with the journey and with being Arab and Muslim and Syrian refugees — if it meant being together. But in the end, the five of them would be scattered in four different cities, across two different European countries. (Out of concern for their security in a new country and the safety of their relatives in Syria, they asked The Times not to divulge their last name).

They joined one million others who also decided in 2015 to escape the catastrophes home had become. The overwhelming majority of them were Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans. While their countries had come apart in different and specific ways, their disasters shared some common origins, including the ruinous consequences of decades of American wars and sanctions.

The mass migration became a European crisis, even as it was much more American in the making. In the United States, politicians rushed to declare that they would not be taking in refugees. The physical distance between the country and the places it was fighting in or bombarding appeared to be matched by how far emotionally most Americans seemed to feel from the tragedies their country had helped birth.

In 2015, one of most hideous byproducts of American foreign policies in the Arab and Muslim worlds, the so-called Islamic State, was ascendant, having declared a caliphate in Syria and Iraq. This terrified Suhair and her children — a family led by women. She and her two eldest daughters provided for everyone, ever since, they say, her husband abandoned them and squandered any wealth they had. ISIS promised to impose the most draconian restrictions on women, in a one-upmanship meant to outdo already zealous competitors.

But ISIS was just the last straw. The family had long felt there wasn’t a place in Syria for them or for any Syrian who wanted meaningful citizenship in a country where a transparent government — and not a corrupt regime — governed, not ruled, and did so with respect for basic human rights. Instead, the Assad dynasty had for 45 years maintained its power by force, with ever-escalating brutality.

In September 2015, the photographer Peter van Agtmael and I traveled to the Greek island of Kos. That summer’s mass migration was a convergence of our professional and personal interests. As a journalist, I had an idea of both where these people were coming from and where they were headed. As a daughter of Syrians who themselves had always planned to return to Syria but who reluctantly ended up in the United States, I saw the phenomenon of Syrians pouring out of their home country as a constant and vivid reminder of fate’s vagaries. On Kos, I was welcomed — an American tourist whose being Syrian was just an exotic curiosity and not a reason to be detested or banned.

Peter saw the crisis as a continuation of his coverage of post-9/11 interventions abroad, and their domestic and global consequences. His most recent work looks at how Americans seem to quickly lose interest in the spectacle of their wars, though lip service is so often paid to the sanctity of military service.

When we checked into our cheap motel on Kos, I overheard in the garden Syrian Arabic spoken in different accents — from the countryside, Damascus, the coast. I saw an unlikely gathering of recently arrived refugees, chatting, drinking coffee and smoking. Among them were Suhair, Naela, Maisam and Yousef. (Souad was already in Amsterdam.) I introduced myself, and they told Peter and me the story of their treacherous journey from Turkey. They had not known one another before, but they had been stranded on the same raft and worked as a group to get to shore. Now they were sticking together in the face of a daunting trip onward to their intended destinations in Northern Europe.

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We asked if we could join them. They said yes. Since then, we have remained in weekly contact with them. In March 2016, October 2016, September 2017 and December 2018, we visited them in Europe to report on and photograph their lives.

While the mass migration itself was a stunning phenomenon, it is only the beginning of a much bigger story, which will continue to unfold. On Thursday, The Times published Part 1 of a project following Suhair and her family members as they adjust to life in Europe and try to move beyond the label of “war refugee.” This first dispatch explores a mother’s nearly impossible decision to risk her children’s lives to flee Syria for the chance of a better life. “I’m their mother; I brought them to this world, to this life,” she says. “They’re my responsibility.”

We’ll share more stories here in the coming months.

Alia Malek is the author of “The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria,” the editor of “EUROPA: An Illustrated Introduction to Europe for Migrants and Refugees” and the director of the international reporting program at Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.

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