When I came to the United States from Turkey as an international student 13 years ago, it was because there were limited educational and professional opportunities for women at home. Though I had two degrees, there was no appropriate Ph.D. program for me in Turkey. I was lucky enough to receive a scholarship that covered my tuition in a Ph.D. program and a small teaching assistant salary in the U.S., and I was eager to join my many friends who were studying abroad, and to grow from the diversity and different cultures in the states.
I cannot compare my status then with that of today’s Syrian refugees, but even under my different circumstances, the transition from one culture to another was hard and I didn’t always feel welcome. Not speaking English fluently and not understanding American culture were the greatest early challenges I faced, with outcomes occasionally funny but often disheartening and cruel. To earn my scholarship, I was ironically assigned to teach public speaking while I was barely able to craft a sentence in English. I was beyond embarrassed to be in front of the students.
When I first arrived in the United States, I was very lonely and found it difficult to make connections. Once in a thrift store, while talking in Turkish with a friend we were scolded and told “You are in the U.S., so speak English.” I often wanted to participate in the conversations around me. I would have a great story to tell, one that could make people laugh, but I didn’t have the fluency or vocabulary to tell it. I kept a lot in my heart. I cannot even imagine the challenges of being a Syrian refugee without the resources I had, trying to adapt to living in a foreign land.
One big challenge these refugees face is the current political landscape in which American politicians are using a fear-based rhetoric that suggests Muslim refugees will become terrorists or criminals or dependents of the state. Not only will they face similar difficulties to mine as they assimilate culturally, but will be faced with an irrational fear and preconceived notion upon arrival.
While it is possible in theory, from my experience it is highly unlikely that a terrorist disguised as a Syrian refugee would be legally admitted to the United States given the comprehensive nature of the current immigration process. In order to be admitted to the United States, I submitted a huge folder including bank accounts, real estate and car ownership, tax returns, health insurance documentation, pay stubs, employment letters, pay slips, admission letters from the university where I was to work, an I-20 document that is sent by the U.S. government, airfare tickets, visa application forms, visa application fee, etc. There was a long wait for the background search and all applicants were interviewed by an embassy officer who compared data collected to interview answers. The existing admission processes is so thorough that a Syrian with a criminal or suspicious background would have a very difficult time being granted admission.
Due to the involvement of the United States in wars in the Middle East, there is a lot of hatred against the country. (A quick Google search uncovers countless articles about hatred against the United States, including “9 Countries That Hate America Most,” and eight of these nine countries are in the Middle East). Even in Turkey, which has not been in active combat with the United States, the revulsion towards the nation is obvious in Istanbul, and the U.S. consulate there is rightly fearful of terrorist attacks. After the 2003 Istanbul Bombings, the embassy moved from a central location in the city to a surreal giant castle on top of a hill away from the city center.
Its foreign policy does not make the United States a hero in the Middle East. But by admitting more Syrian refugees and offering more aid to them, the United States can begin to change its role and reputation not only in the eyes of the Middle East but in the eyes of the entire world.
Two hundred and twenty thousand people have died in the Syrian war and millions more have fled the country as refugees. Yet, despite U.S. involvement in the war, it has admitted only 1,854 Syrian refugees since 2012. For Syrians, finding a safe place to live is a matter of living or dying. The United States could admit more refugees and welcome them in ways that enable them to create roots here.
Of course, not all Americans are turning a blind eye to the Syrian refugee crisis. Some choose to convey the stories of Syrian refugees in creative ways, such as Brandon Stanton with his photo website Humans of New York, in order to create awareness. Some choose to donate money. Some communities choose to invite and host more refugees.
But we need more Americans to turn away from their electronic gadgets and entertainment distractions and stop blocking out the tragedy. They may think, “If we don’t hear it, maybe it does not exist.” But it does. We need to help, and when they arrive, we need to welcome them with kindness and compassion.
Ozge Samanci is an artist and an assistant professor at Northwestern University. Her debut graphic novel, Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey, has just been published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.