Lots of people have an opinion about Syrian refugees and the terror that currently engulfs that country. But, Syria is over 5,000 miles away from the United States, and is a land where the people speak a different language. Many Americans have never met a Syrian, and may not even be consciously aware that Syrians are people, just like Americans are people. Syrians have families and friends and jobs, hopes and dreams, and unique histories. Here are a few facts about Syria:
- Damascus is the capital of Syria and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. The valley where Damascus is located has been inhabited since 9,000 BCE. People have been living in areas now encompassed by the city since 6,300 BCE, and a recognizable city has stood there since the second millennium BCE.
- Aleppo was, until recently, the largest city in Syria, with Damascus being the second-largest. However, so much violence, death, and migration has wracked Aleppo during recent conflicts, that its population has likely declined below that of Damascus.
- Most Syrians are Muslim, however 10% of Syrians are Christian, and about 3% are Druze, who self-identify as unitarians, and believe in reincarnation. Syria has the largest Druze population in the world. Syria’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, including the right to adopt atheism, but does require that children undergo religious education for whatever religion their parents are or were in.
- Munira al-Qubaysi founded Al-Qubaysiat, Sufi-Islamic movement for women and girls, offering Islamic education to women and girls, and is the only such movement in the world. She is considered to be the 24th most influential Muslim in the world.
- 84% of Syrians speak Modern Standard Arabic, but a different dialect, North Syrian Arabic, is spoken in the northern part of the country. There are many different forms of Arabic spoken in the world, and some of them are mutually unintelligible. In addition to Arabic, people of various ethnicities and from various regions of Syria speak Kurdish, Armenian, Aramaic, Circassian, French, and English. I bet you know someone who speaks one of those languages.
- There are over 150,000 Syrian Americans. Some famous Americans with Syrian heritage include Paula Abdul, Teri Hatcher, Steve Jobs, and Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld’s maternal grandparents were Syrian Jews from Aleppo.
- Syrian food is f*cking delicious. You should find a restaurant near you and try some. You will recognize many dishes if you are familiar with Middle-Eastern food in general, but you might not recognize them all. There are hundreds of Syrian restaurants in the United States, though many advertise themselves as Arabic or Middle-Eastern. There are even Syrian beers you can try, Al-Shark and Barada. In fact, clay tablets found in the ruins of the ancient city of Ebla made mention of several varieties of beer being produced there… in 2500 BCE.
- Syrians value education. Education in Syria is free and compulsory from age 7 to 15. Instruction is in Arabic, but English and French are taught from 1st grade. Education before age 7 and beyond age 15 is available, but not mandatory. The educational system in Syria has shown great progress and growth in the previous two decades, despite the nation being under the specter of oppression and war for so long, but it will need much investment to continue. In the United States, 35% of Syrian Americans 25 and older have a Bachelor’s degree, compared to 24% of the general population of all Americans.
- Significant numbers of Syrians started immigrating to the United States in the 1870s. In fact, Syrians represented the majority of Arab immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century. Today, Syrian Americans represent about 12% of the Arab American population which, as of 2010, stood at about 1.7 million people.
- The Syrian civil war, which has been ongoing since 2011, is a complex, multi-sided, multi-national war whose main constituents are the Syrian Government, The Syrian Revolutionary Command Council, ISIL, and Rojava (Western Kurdistan). Internationally, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah have allied themselves with the Syrian Government, and even North Korea has officially supported them. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey support the opposition forces of the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council. Iraqi Kurdistan and Russia also support Rojava. The United States has been active against ISIL, but does not have an official stance of support for any group.
The Syrian civil war is clearly a mire of death and conflict by proxy, with wealthier, larger, more powerful nations using Syria as a battleground to attack their enemies or to gain economic and political influence for their own interests. The Syrian people are little more than an afterthought for the various rival factions and their supporters. The death toll is estimated to be about 470,000 (about 1 in 36 of the prewar population), with the UN having identified another 13.5 million Syrians requiring humanitarian assistance: including 6.6 million who have been internally displaced and 4.8 million who have fled Syria as refugees. Over 1 million Syrians have formally requested asylum in other countries.
Here is an example of what Syrian refugees look like: