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What makes me different from today’s Syrian refugees? Just fate and timing

April 7, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
As a Syrian-American journalist who has covered Syria’s refugee crisis, Alia Malek understands where they are coming from and where they’re going. The circumstances today are so different from when her parents left Damascus, yet it could have been her family caught in the horrors of war. Malek offers her humble opinion about how to practice empathy for the victims of the Syrian conflict.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: reflections on coming to the United States from author Alia Malek, who considers the various journeys Syrian refugees take on their many roads from Damascus.

ALIA MALEK, Journalist: In September 2015, I felt I had to drop everything and go to Turkey to report on Syrians as they hurriedly made their way to Europe, trying to beat the rapidly closing borders.

As a Syrian-American, their fate was one I had only accidentally been spared.

As I accompanied them on this journey, I couldn’t help thinking of how different their circumstances were from how my own Syrian family had ended up in the diaspora, of how my mother, pregnant with me, herself had left Damascus.

Unlike the dangerous Mediterranean Sea crossings and the trek through the Balkans, her trip itself wasn’t treacherous, and it wasn’t undignified. She was traveling to Baltimore to join my father, a medical resident at the University of Maryland.

While emotionally painful, her journey couldn’t have been easier. She wasn’t facing imminent death or displacement, as people are today. In fact, both my parents meant to eventually return to their homeland.

But when it became clear what life would be like under the Assad regime, they gave up their dream to return. Years after all their children were born American, they too finally became naturalized Americans.

When my family arrived here in the ’70s, being Syrian wasn’t a barrier to becoming American. Even if Arabs weren’t well-perceived generally, Syrians specifically didn’t hold much of a place in the American imagination or consciousness.

In fact, I remember the best a schoolyard bully could do was tell me that, as a Syrian, I ate too much cereal. Oh, for those days.

In these past six years, as Syria has disintegrated, taken over the headlines, and as Syrians have become the foreign menace of the day, I have often thought about the vagaries of fate, of how accidental and unintended occurrences are what separate me from the Syrians unfairly maligned, banned, and banished today, how our lot depends on when we decided to leave, where we landed, and how we got there, whether we boarded flights with regular tickets and visas, or were piled on top of each other on flimsy rafts and left to drift across the sea unguided, how our future depends on what suffix happens to follow Syrian on arrival.

Is it refugee? Is it immigrant? Is it American? I’m lucky to be that last one.

A Syrian mother I was traveling with across Europe worried at each new border, what would happen to her children? In Syria, they had been comfortably working class. Her husband was a baker, and she was a stay-at-home mom.

At the beginning of the trip, her children were horrified to have to relieve themselves outdoors and in public. Within days, though, she was pained to see how they had quickly adjusted to their new reality.

I instead approached each crossing with a guilty confidence of a passport-carrying American. I was completely aware that my fortune was in large part by chance and circumstance.

But, rather than make me unique, I imagine that makes me like many other Americans whose families were also once upon the time among the lucky, favored by fate to have made it to these shores when and how we did.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that’s a perspective we need to hear, Alia Malek.

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