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The Syrian Refugee Crisis: Historical Antecedents, Literary Production, and Religious Humanitarianism

Panel VII-8, sponsored bySyrian Studies Association, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
Now in its twelfth year, the Syrian Revolution of 2011 has produced a crisis of refugee migration that has not been seen since WWII. The rapid influx of Syrian refugees across has given rise to a robust scholarly literature, across multiple disciplines. Yet the bulk of approaches taken to date have been limited to disciplinary silos, with little communication between fieldwork-based ethnographic work, policy and practitioner reports, and humanities scholarship. This panel attempts to address the Syrian refugee crisis through a multilayered approach, one informed dually by scholarly and practitioner lenses. Papers will address the historical antecedents of migration flows, using migration corridors established during the Ottoman Empire. Additionally, they will address literary production from Syrian refugees, and the role of exilic cultural production in reconstituting Syrian identity in exile. In the practitioner realm, papers will offer analysis of the unauthorized trafficking of Syrian minors into Europe, as well as social work analysis of Syrian refugee fathers living in Quebec. These contributions will articulate the unique psychological challenges the refugee condition produces, both for refugee children and parents, upon resettlement. The panel will also engage the role of religion in the refugee crisis, by analyzing the role of Syrian Sufi-inspired humanitarian organizations offering international aid to refugees dispersed around the globe – most recently in the aftermath of the 2023 earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. Finally, the panel will offer legal analysis of the refugee crisis, and explore durable solutions for displaced refugees in neighboring countries. The panel thus will offer critical contributions from anthropology, political science, religious studies, and will offer equally deep contributions to the NGO, humanitarian aid, and practitioner communities.
International Relations/Affairs
Political Science
Religious Studies/Theology
  • Religion in the Syrian Revolution of 2011 has often been analyzed through the prism of jihadism. The rise of ISIS in particular has helped reinforce a binary between the secular authoritarianism of the Assad regime and the religious authoritarianism of jihadi groups. This paper instead focuses on the role of religion in supporting the Revolution’s aims globally, through religious humanitarianism. More specifically, it explores the role of Syrian Sufi humanitarian organizations in offering critical relief in disasters and conflict zones around the world. Originally founded in the UK in the late twentieth century, these Sufi humanitarian aid groups now operate transnationally, offering relief for dispersed Palestinians, Uighurs, Afghans, and Syrians. This paper will explore the history and theological influences of these organizations, and their work in transcending nation-state lines to offer transnational relief to beleaguered communities. It will focus primarily on the role these Sufi aid organizations have played in servicing Syrian refugees near the Syrian-Turkish border, relying on fieldwork from participation in relief convoys both in 2015, and in 2023 following the earthquake that as of this writing has killed over 11,000 Turks and Syrians. This paper makes the case that Syrian Sufism can serve as an organic vocabulary for social justice, and for representing the aims of the Revolution in exile.
  • With the collapse of the Iraqi state in 2003, the West became fixated on keeping refugees from the Middle East out of Europe. The result was extraordinary efforts to contain displaced Syrians within the region through bilateral agreements, ‘development’ financing, and the establishment of humanitarian aid camps. This paper suggests that Western efforts to contain displaced people within the region was like fighting a ‘straw man’. That is, relatively few of those displaced by war and armed conflict in the region had any desire to seek asylum in Europe. Rather, depending upon social, economic, kinship networks, and historical ties within the Ottoman empire, they preferred to remain in the region following pre-established transnational migrations corridors. This paper argues that the current hosting of between 5-6 million Syrians in the Levant is based on Ottoman precedents and pre-colonial practices and less on the containment policies of 21st century fortress Europe.
  • Nation-states, NGOs, and the media generally identify the refugee as a ‘threat’ or a ‘problem’. By continuously focusing on the political, the social and the humanitarian in Refugee Studies, the representation of the refugee continues to be negative. In this paper, I aim to push Refugee Studies towards the humanities -a field that has been neglected in relation to the refugee-. I hypothesize that literature can play a role in re-thinking the identity and experience of refugees. My PhD dissertation focuses on the literature produced by Syrian refugees who have sought asylum in Turkey -where I also have found refuge-, France, and Germany. Syrians constitute the highest numbers of refugees around the world (UNHCR) and dozens of them have published novels, plays and short story collections that narrate their experiences, yet these literary writings remain unnoticed. Syrian intellectuals are writing about their escape from the brutality of the Asad regime, their journey into the unknown and their struggles to learn new languages and to assimilate in communities where hospitality too quickly turns into Derrida’s hostipitality. These works are not the well-known diaspora, exile, or migrant literature, but constitute a distinctive genre that I theorize using Bakthin’s Chronotope: the Refugee Chronotope. My paper will analyze four works: Ḍāhir ‘Īṭa’s novel Malādh al-‘Atama (Haven of Darkness), Nagham Khīṭū’s novel Shaẓāyā al- Janūb (Shrapnel of the South), Ibtisām Shākūsh’s autobiography Tawq Fi ʿUnuq (Noose around My Neck) and Bilāl al-Barghūth’s short story collection Thalātha Lāji’īn Wa Niṣf (Three Refugees and a Half).
  • The unauthorized migration of Syrian refugees to Europe has generated shock, the global public appalled by photos of corpses of children washed ashore. A plethora of studies have shown how Syrians, especially unaccompanied minors, during their irregular journeys have fallen prey of criminal networks, such as human smugglers and traffickers. Yet, studies have often overlooked the importance of national and ethnic ties in the formation of transnational networks able to support refugees throughout their journey and settlement in the country of arrival. This paper focuses on the experience of Syrian minors who left their country following the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. Rather than repeating a narrative already abundantly circulating in media and policy circles, it contradicts the widely accepted belief that unaccompanied minors are passive victims at the mercy of trafficking rings. On the one hand, it shows how the inclusion of children in official spaces of protection (let alone their over criminalization) put in place by authorities and the international community during their journeys have often curbed minors’ agency. On the other, it demonstrates how the day-to-day interactions between facilitators and Syrian minors can at times provide minors on the move with new horizons of possibility.