Last Friday night, students and staff streamed into the Buchanan Lecture Theatre. After hours, this was not an academic event – rather, the brainchild of Emily Miller and Ellie Fields: St Andrews for Syria. Comprising of four talks followed by a panel discussion, this event was put on to raise awareness of the situation in Syria, particularly Aleppo, as well as the international responses, both in the media and to the resulting, so-called, ‘refugee crisis’.
After viewing a looped video of destroyed buildings as we entered, Ellie and Emily started off the evening with an overview of how they became interested in the issue and what they hoped to achieve throughout the evening. Professor Raymond Hinnebusch, of the St Andrew’s IR department followed. Though he was not a speaker of the evening, as something of an expert in Middle Eastern politics, he introduced each of the speakers and also ran the panel discussion later on. A welcome message and a thank you to Ellie and Emily was preceded by the first talk.
Dr Idrees Ahmad, author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War and lecturer at the University of Stirling, spoke first. He discussed how information is manipulated in the media; how western presentations of the Syrian conflict rarely show the total truth of the situation. An example he named was Robert Fisk, a well-known journalist, who has been ‘embedded’ in Syria for the last few years. Though Fisk has a history of criticising the dangers of embedding, Ahmad presented us with evidence that Fisk himself had fallen prey to these dangers: a distinct loss of objectivity seemed to be the main aspect. Ahmad also spoke of the larger western media, citing (mainly European) reactions to the incoming refugees. Statistics of the percentage that were still at home or internally-displaced, the percentage in places such as Turkey and Lebanon, compared to the percentage that are now in Europe truly drove his message home. He sat down to thunderous applause, and we moved onto the second speaker.
Next was Dr Ayman Al-Yassini, who works in refugee determination in Canada. In his own words, it is difficult work because he is “impacting the lives of individuals”, rather than the statistics refugees are so often seen as. Though his presentation did not speak much of the situation in Syria, he explained much about Canada’s relationship with Syrian refugees. Aylan Kurdi put the topic of refugees onto the agenda of the 2015 Canadian elections, and it was the Liberal party which committed to the entry of 25,000 over the following six months, which eventually won (as opposed to the Conservatives, who focused on fighting Daesh/ISIS and would only allow 15,000 refugees to enter Canada over five years). Al-Yassini discussed the complicated process involved in putting this policy into action, and how it is even ongoing now, as the refugees adjust to life in Canada. Similarly, he compared the merits and downfalls of private sponsors of refugees, a system popular in Canada and open to almost anybody, and government-sponsored intake. To end, he reminded us all that while Syrian refugees do matter, there are a great many other nationalities which need our help and should not be forgotten about.
The next speaker was Dr Jasmine Gani, a lecturer in International Relations here at St Andrews. Her presentation was mostly focused on the lives of refugees. She began with stories of individuals; who they were, how they came to leave Syria, and what their lives were like afterwards. She then moved on to discuss Europe’s attitudes towards refugees. Her main focus was on the humanity of refugees, and the ‘statistics, not people’ approach taken by many governments. She condemned the way they closed their borders to children for ‘security’ reasons, how refugee camps lacked many basic necessities of life, how families were split up and no effort was made by authorities to combat or prevent this. Dr Gani brought up Western attitudes towards Syrian displaced persons when they were still in the Middle East (sympathy) and the contrast to how we treat them when they want to enter our own countries.
She threw statistics at us, like the 4000 refugees who died crossing the Mediterranean sea just this year, the one-fifth of the population of Lebanon that are refugees, in between discussing the political and cultural shift that is needed in mind-sets to help the situation. Dr Gani talked of the distressing rise of extreme right-wing political parties such as UKIP and Golden Dawn, the dereliction of human responsibility, and the end of the EU programme Mare Nostrum which only led to more deaths. How can we fix this? She says that we, the public, need to build up the momentum of opinion, forcing politicians to welcome, not just tolerate, refugees, and treat them like “human beings, not refugees”.
Finally, Alastair Gordon-Gibson took the stage. He is a current post-graduate student at St Andrews, and completed his undergraduate here as well, but in between has worked for humanitarian organisations such as Red Cross. “1 to 100 deaths is a tragedy; 100,000 is a statistic” was the unofficial theme of his talk. Academics and policy-makers, he argued, view the refugee crisis and their potential responses in very black-and-white terms. However, there has to be a lack of cynicism, a kernel of humanity, in every person, and these are what we should access when we try to figure out how to respond. There is no media attention to ‘liberated’ areas of Syria, though they also need help; soldiers, too, are ignored victims of this conflict. It is organisations like the UN, as well as local and international NGOs, which do what they can to get aid into Syria, though most of their aid does not reach where it is meant to. It is governmental systems that fail us in moments like these, Gordon-Gibson says, as this is a common tragedy that affects all of us, not just Syrians.
When Gordon-Gibson sat back down, we realised that the talks had continued much longer than expected. This meant that the subsequent panel discussion, facilitated by sli.do and Professor Hinnebusch, could only go through three or four questions before the event was up. Topics covered in the discussion included the lost generation of Syrian children who missed out on school due to the conflict, whether or not it was possible to reconcile the various narratives on the topic, and how each speaker felt it would be best to stop the conflict without further worsening it.
As we emerged from the Buchanan, there was a definite air of wow. None of the attendees had really expected for our eyes and minds to be opened in such a way. The events in Syria, and their effects on the wider world, were all of a sudden tangible and so much more 3D than they had been mere hours ago. Yes, it was Friday night spent in a lecture theatre listening to people talk, but a Friday night well-spent. In missing this event, you definitely lost out; hopefully this article has done something to alleviate your FOMO.
Huge thanks and appreciation towards Ellie Fields and Emily Miller for putting on the event, and may none of us ever forget it.