Earlier this year, I visited the tiny village of Dafyaneh, Jordan, a small cluster of cheaply built limestone homes huddled together against the rain, less than a mile from the Syrian border.
To the al-Issa, a local tribe that has inhabited the area in and around Dafyaneh for hundreds of years, that border never even existed until a century ago when the Sykes-Picot Agreement carved up parts of the Ottoman Empire into the Arab world as we know it. Members of the al-Issa tribe suddenly became either Syrians or Jordanians, depending on which side of the arbitrary new boundary line they happened to live.
Nearly one hundred years later, when today’s crisis in Syria began taking a violent turn for the worse, the al-Issa of Dafyaneh remembered their long lost relatives across the border. The village elders, led by a local sheikh, decided to host several hundred refugees, many of whom had risked their lives in dangerous journeys to Jordan. “Free Syrian Army fighters smuggled us from our home in southern Syria to the Jordanian border,” the father of several young children explained to me while I sipped tea on the floor of his cold cinder block home in Dafyaneh. Now, the village hosts the refugees with the help of donations from residents and local charities.
I remembered the refugees of Dafyaneh when I first read news of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy who made international headlines last week when shocking images appeared of him lying lifeless, washed up on a Turkish beach. His family, refugees from northern Syria, had attempted a dangerous – and all too common – journey to safety on the Greek island of Kos. They set off across the open sea in an inflatable boat with no life vests, like thousands of other families before them.
To Aylan, the very act of crossing a border was a deadly journey.
Aylan quickly became a powerful symbol of the refugee hardship that has sparked an outpouring of support from many asylum seekers’ new European hosts. As buses and trains of refugees began arriving in Central Europe this past week, many were greeted with welcome signs, candies and even the Ode to Joy Chorus – scenes that have become a rare testament to humanity’s lack of borders.
On Sunday, Reuters reported an estimated 8,000 refugees – mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – arrived in Germany, the end destination for many. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said she expects around 800,000 arrivals this year, according to The Guardian.
As Europe begins to open its doors to the largest migration crisis since World War II, and as Syria’s relatively poor immediate neighbors bear the majority of externally displaced Syrians, critics have scorned oil rich Gulf Arab states for doing next to nothing for the four million Syrian brethren now living as refugees. Gulf states could indeed learn a valuable lesson in cross-border brotherhood from the village of Dafyaneh.
But what about the United States, a country that has been uncomfortably involved in conflicts destabilizing the region?
We too could learn from Dafyaneh. Foreign policy aside, the United States is a nation of immigrants, refugees and peoples of all backgrounds, bound in our own version of brotherhood defined by our shared dream for a better life. We are a nation built – in theory – on providing asylum to those in search of that dream. It’s a virtue inscribed into the Statue of Liberty itself. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
And yet, since the start of Syria’s conflict, the United States has accepted a mere 1,500 Syrian asylum-seekers for resettlement. This Wednesday, President Obama proposed raising by 5,000 the current annual 70,000 limit on all refugees allowed into the country. This would be an improvement, but far more needs to be done.
Aid groups, as well as a handful of senators and Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley, have urged the United States to accept as many as 65,000 Syrian refugees.
But that isn’t enough.
If Germany, a country one quarter of our size, can take in 800,000 refugees, we can certainly do more. If Lebanon, a country of four million, can take in over one million of its Syrian neighbors, we can do more. Let’s take Dafyaneh’s example and set aside the arbitrary borders and oceans that tend to divide people. Let’s live up to our own country’s ideals.