By: David Tribuch  | 

Expert Panel Discusses the Syrian Refugee Crisis and Social Justice

On the night of December 15, the YU Tzedek Society and Stern College Social Justice Society, in conjunction with the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors program and Schneier Program for International Affairs, held an event to discuss the Syrian refugee crisis. Many students and faculty members, including Provost Selma Botman, Dean Karen Bacon, and Mashgiach Rabbi Yosef Blau, filled up the second floor lecture room in Belfer Hall to hear a panel of experts discuss the subject.

Before the panel was introduced, Provost Botman gave some opening remarks, calling the crisis both “timely and urgent, and remind[ing] us all too well of the situation of European Jewry”.

When describing the orchestration of the event, YU Tzedek Society President Yosie Friedman said that “what happens a lot during these discussions is that people either ignore the human aspect of the issue, or they ignore the public policy aspects. It’s important in issues like this that people here about all of the aspects involved”. In this sense, Mr. Friedman and Ms. Dina Chizik, President of the Stern Social Justice Society were successful in arranging a panel with people who are involved in different aspects of the crisis.
The panelists included Zaina Erhaim, a respected Syrian journalist who has won a number of prestigious journalism awards, Mustafar Chisti, an influential immigration lawyer, and Mario Sauder, a German consul member currently posted in Germany’s New York consulate.

Before the roundtable discussion began, each of the panelists gave a short opening statement describing their perspective. Ms. Erhaim said that her view is one of a more personal nature. She said that most of the Syrians who flee the country still have a strong desire to remain there, and hope to eventually return to their homeland. Mr. Sauder opened with Germany’s involvement in the crisis, and their open immigration law meant to atone for their sins of The Holocaust. Finally, Mr. Chizni briefly discussed his experience as an immigration lawyer, and how it is a part of the United States’ value system to take in the Syrian refugees.

At this point, Professor Ruth Bevan, YU’s longtime political science professor and moderator for the event, began the discussion by asking the panelists how the crisis escalated to the way it is today. Ms. Erhaim immediately blamed Assad and Obama’s failure to act once his “red lines” were crossed. Mr. Chizni argued that the crisis has been real for a while now but it “only became real for us when it became the front page of the New York Times, at which point it was too late”.

Chizni further emphasized his point of the Unites States’ responsibility towards the Syrian refugees when Professor Bevan asked about the turning point in Syrian crisis. He answered that the Middle Eastern countries did their part to help the Syrian refugees, going so far as saying that a large portion of those countries’ populations are Syrians. He then criticized the United States saying that “an immigrant nation founded by refugees should be ashamed at the number of Syrians they have taken in”.

Professor Bevan then asked Mr. Sauder about the effect that the refugees have had on Europe. He answered that the refugees have overwhelmed the countries of the EU, and they are having trouble integrating them into their societies. He again stressed that Germany is trying hard to make up for the past, but that their relatively small country is having trouble absorbing all of them. Additionally, many of the European countries are having their own shift to the right, who feel that the many immigrants are ruining the various national identities. However, he is optimistic that Germany and its people will still welcome in refugees.

Then, Professor Bevan asked about the potential threat that the Syrian refugees pose towards national security. Mr. Chizni responded that “this claim has been front and center of the Republican Party… but of the 700,000-plus refugees that we have brought in since 9/11, only three of them have been tried for terrorist activities”. He further argued that due to the rigorous screening process “coming in as a refugee would be the worst way for a terrorist to enter the country”.

Ms. Erhaim described that she, as an internationally respected journalist, had visa difficulties and was even blacklisted for a time from entering the country. She said she can only imagine how much more difficult it must be for the average refugee. “We are running away from terror--why would we be terrorists?”, she asked rhetorically. She added that most of the ISIS militants in Syria are those who have been recruited from the US and Britain. Mr. Sauder argued that “terrorism is a concern but that does not mean that you have to shut out all of the Syrian refugees”.

Student response to the event was very positive, especially in praise for the diversity and knowledge of the panel. Ms. Chizik was impressed with turnout and hoped that the event was able to bring the issue closer to home.

The YU Tzedek Society and Stern College Social Justice Society are student organizations that intend to effect social change and bring light to issues of social justice on campus. The Tzedek Society is best known on the Wilf Campus perhaps for their annual sock drive, which gives needy families socks to manage the cold New York winters. This is the Stern Social Justice’s first major event of the year.