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Story Publication logo November 30, 2015

Is There a Link Between Refugees and Extremists?


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What drives young people to go and fight in Syria? How are governments trying to stop them, and does...

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Sudanese refugees look over a balcony on the outskirts of Amman, Jordan. Image by Alice Su. Jordan, 2015.

Terror seems to spin in circles these days: Beirut, Baghdad, Paris, Mali, and now, again, Tunisia. As details come out about the November 24 bus bombing in Tunis, I am thinking of the last attack in Tunisia, this summer on the beach in Sousse. I'd been reporting on youth extremism there, wondering why so many young people from the only democracy born of the 2011 uprisings were going to fight in Syria and Iraq. The day after a 23-year-old gunman massacred 38 sunbathing tourists, a Tunisian mother whispered to me how she'd hid in her room, afraid to go out, crying all afternoon in the dark. "This is not Tunisia," the mother insisted. Tunisians are quiet, moderate, calm, she said—not terrorist. "Thank God I left the house eventually," she said. "I went to the market with my neighbors. We needed to hold each other's hands."

Later that week, a younger Tunisian girl wept as she read Facebook posts to me out loud, sentiments much the same as those we see now: a father declared (in French) that nothing would stop him from taking his son to play at the beach. Sousse would stand in happiness, not fear. But there were other posts too—Tunisians from Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine and other impoverished inland regions, mocking the wealthy coastal cities for having their blue skies punctured. "Now you know how it feels," the anonymous commentators gloated. My Tunisian friend swore under her breath. "This is not Tunisia," she said.

I watched this summer as Tunisia careened between fear of terror and rejection of autocracy, trying to balance security versus freedom, a barely-born democracy whorled into a vortex of confused identity. I watched this week as Paris spurred responses with a similar dichotomy: those affirming strength of human spirit, resilience and love, and those angrier voices murmuring, "You are surprised by pain because you are usually oblivious. You don't see the world like we do."

Is there a link between refugees and extremism? I spent the last year completing two projects with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting: one on protracted refugee crises in Jordan and Lebanon, the other on youth extremism in Jordan and Tunisia. Living in Amman, I was curious why these in- and outflows were happening at once: desperate people fleeing from nearby crises, willing to subsist on the margins rather than go back, living non-lives without a way to work or move forward, while young men with citizenship streamed toward Syria and Jordan for voluntary battle.

My confusion came from a gap in understanding, similar to the gap between responses to Sousse in July and Paris now. I was looking at these subjects from an outside perspective, one disconnected from the region's historical traumas and ongoing suffering. I saw closed borders, displacement camps, wars and killing, but only after reporting did I see the link between refugees and extremists: that deep injustice creates both.

In February this year, I watched the Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kassasbeh burn in a cage online with my Jordanian-Palestinian roommate. Soon after, King Abdullah declared wrath and revenge on television. Jordan intensified its participation in the anti-ISIS coalition. My roommate and other Jordanian friends huddled in the cafés of Amman. "This is just like the 2005 bombings, or when Saddam invaded Kuwait," they whispered, recalling where they'd been and what they'd been doing on the day of Jordan's last terrorist bombings, or when chemicals weapons were used in Syria, or when the Gulf War began, remembering the same fear of violent spillover and same question asked with every crisis, "Will we get out of the region?"

My childhood held no awareness of the Middle East until 9/11, which I remember as a nationwide shock of surprise, grief, and genuine questioning, "Why do they hate us?" Whereas my friends grew up in constant unease, I remember American flags and an occasional sense of broken oblivion. I never had to think, "How can I get out of this country?" They have always been on the edge of their seats, swinging from crisis to crisis, hoping for a flash moment in 2011 that things would change, but now plunged back into disillusionment.

Earlier this year, I profiled a young Jordanian named Jihad who lost faith in activism and crossed into Syria to fight against Bashar al-Assad, only to be radicalized by Jabhat al-Nusra and die on the battlefield in 2014. Two scenes from his story stick in my mind: first, a line of graffiti in his neighborhood, a poor section of East Amman housing mostly Palestinians and now also Syrian refugees, where Jihad wrote during the 2011 protests: "Why does the king live in a castle while the people are dying of poverty?" The words are half-covered with red scribbles, but still visible and relevant. Second, how his mother described the days before Jihad left home: "He would sit in our living room watching Al-Jazeera, seeing the women and children die and he would cry, cry, cry."

Another night in Tunis, I drank coffee along Habib Bourguiba Avenue with a former Salafist who told me about his days in prison under Ben Ali. "Tunisians are psychologically mutilated," the former Salafist said. Tunisians have long been moderate and peaceful, but under tyrannical enforcement, he said, with torture for the dissenters. Those surprised at the extremism had forgotten about dictatorship, he added. "Ask any of these people if they want shari'a law, and they will say yes," the man said, motioning at the Ramadan crowds passing by. "But ask what shari'a means specifically, and no one knows. They just want shari'a as an alternative to the world as it is. That's why 2011 happened. People were hungry for justice—things made right—and we are still hungry now."

Injustice is the link between refugees and extremists, especially in the Middle East. There, apocalyptic literature is superfluous; the world feels like it is already ending. Anyone can watch the news and mourn, but we in secure countries can eventually wipe it from our minds and go about our careers and lives. Those who are marginalized, poor, oppressed or under fire cannot escape so easily. Direct injustice forces people to become refugees, while protracted injustice becomes fodder and breeding ground for extremism. The more we shut our eyes to the former, the more the latter will grow.

A second link between refugees and extremism is that one can help us to combat the other. Fighting extremism means we must also find real ways to give hope to those on the crushed side of our world—and no one knows how to do that better than refugees. The first time I wrote about refugees for The Atlantic, readers and friends raised money from abroad to fund gas heaters for the Sudanese refugees in Amman. Mohamedain Suliman, the Sudanese community's informal leader who'd been stuck in Jordan for 11 years, waiting for resettlement, took me through the alleys and back roads where those from Darfur, Kordofan and Jebel Nuba were living. It was snowing, and many of the Sudanese wore rubber sandals. Mohamedain carried two cell phones that were always ringing, now a Sudanese needing urgent hospital fees, now a group protesting in front of UNHCR, now a single mother needing blankets for a new baby—Mohamedain didn't have extra money, but he'd pull the community together to pool funds, work extra, borrow, survive.

In May, Mohamedain got resettled to Virginia, where his son is now a cross-country star. When I visited them in March, Mohamedain was working at a laundromat, an upgrade from his first job lifting loads of dairy and frozen meat on the night shift at a factory. He wants to drive cross-country trucks eventually, but needs time to fulfill the license requirement. His oldest son is still stuck in Jordan, his file separated from the family's because he came from Darfur later.

Last summer in Lebanon, I profiled 25-year-old Mohammad, who volunteered with a team using Facebook to raise funds for Syrians in dire need across the Bekaa Valley. This year, Mohammad made it to Germany. As soon as he got his Schengen ID, he started flying back and forth to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon—not to liaise with extremists, as fear-mongering politicians might say, but to raise money, coordinate and deliver medicine, food and clothing for Syrian children across the region. Their need is dire, growing, and has been for years on a scale with which Europe cannot compare: One out of every four people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. In Jordan, it's one in ten. As faraway Americans squabble about how to keep safe, refugees risk their lives daily, seeing and feeling the human cost of attacks in places like Ghouta, Douma and Deir Ezzor, and giving their money, time and safety as salve for the wounds of others.

We need these survivors of Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Sudan, and so many more places to become our neighbors and friends. We need their resilience, their capacity for love, and their understanding that peace is precious and freedom is rare. In a time of terror, these brothers and sisters are our best bet against fear. They have lost more to terrorism than we have and hate it more than we do. They know how to see through the darkness, to survive evil without becoming part of it, to lose everything and yet breathe courage and burn with hope. They have wisdom to share, if we can only learn to listen.


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