Above: The refugee panel at UNA-USA's Members' Day at the UN in February included Sana Mustafa.
By Madison Thomas, USG of Advocacy, UNA Georgetown
The word rang through my ears and pierced my heart as Sana Mustafa described her feelings towards the United States’ apathy in face of the Syrian Refugee Crisis. I was transported back to my childhood and the constant effort to live up to the expectations of my parents and superiors. Back then, no time-out, penance, or scolding could remotely compare to the shame I felt for making a mistake than simple phrase, “I’m disappointed in you.” The worst punishment in the world was knowing I let someone down. Likewise, now, no other reproach could have provoked more distress than Sana’s expression of disappointment.
I was struck by the heaviness in her voice and the urgency in her eyes. The United States had not simply made an innocent mistake, we had let down all of those facing tyranny in Syria; and even more, we had let down the international community. We who pride ourselves on freedom, immigrant roots, and equality disappointed all those expectations.
As I looked around the chamber at Members’ Day at the UN, a room filled with a proportionally high number of youth, I noticed many of my peers were similarly impacted by Sana’s words. A friend to my right was tearing up at Sana’s heart-wrenching story, a student behind me let out a sigh of disbelief. We, like Sana, are all disappointed in the United States’ reaction to the Refugee Crisis.
The United States’ great capacity and great independence bestows a high level of responsibility on the nation. When we fail to rise to the challenge of these responsibilities, the reverberations affect other nations around the world. The Syrian Refugee crisis is an extraordinary example of the U.S.’s failure to rise to an occasion of international concern.
As Sana described, those fleeing the violence in Syria are not, as some media proclaim, terrorists, but rather the victims of terror. They are families like the Mustafa’s who have lost everything in their desperate escape from their homes. They are parents who need work, teenagers who need education, and children who need beds. The media represents refugees as potential terrorists, but it seems to me that the traditional news has become increasingly similar to reality television. With all major events, the Syrian war included, the news now behaves like a drama, mystery, or crime thriller by dehumanizing the real situations disturbing hundreds of thousands of lives.
We have fallen into passivity, sometimes watching the news as entertainment. I do not exclude myself from this charge. I, too, feel indifference towards events that take place around the world. Yet, as Sana reminded me, “It’s news for you; it’s our lives; it’s our reality.” Well, I’m done watching the news like a reality TV show, and I’d posit that many of my peers are done too. I refuse to let my country shame and disappoint me and billions of others around the world.
The room filled with hundreds of student advocates on UNA Members’ Day proved to me that we can make this change happen. The huge participation and positive reaction of youth is testimony: we are going to take on this challenge. We will switch off the insincere reality TV of millions of Americans to show them the true reality. Sana is the reality. Sana’s family stuck in Turkey is the reality.
The room was also filled with a diverse community of people, who are not only U.S. citizens, but also have varied heritage from around the world. Reflecting the multinational representation of the Members’ Day attendees, U.S. involvement in the Syrian crises should likewise be multinational. Our diverse youth population should demand multilateral, cooperative action in Syria. We have spent years learning from history books about the consequences of unilateral intervention by the U.S. in conflicts around the world. The U.S. is not an isolated power; it is a single actor among many in a globalized world. Working with others we do not see eye-to-eye with is not always easy, but collaboration with Russia and other nations in the region is essential to finding a solution. The United States must devote more time and resources to developing these relationships in order to work for the best interest of Syria and its people.
How can young people, who do not hold positions of influence in the government, push for this change? Lobbying our Members of Congress and participating in movements or rallies are ever-constant options. However, with the upcoming elections, we are at an extremely opportune time to advocate our opinions and translate them into actual policy. Each presidential candidate is vying for the youth vote. We can demand change by making the issue central to the campaigns that want to garner youth support. Then the jump from campaign policy proposal to actual, implementable policy is much less drastic than starting from nothing. In this way, young Americans can be a powerful determinant of the nature of the reconciliation process in the Middle East.
Sana, thankful for her opportunity to live and study in the U.S., promised not to disappoint us in her contributions future. Now, it’s our turn to promise her that we will no longer disappoint her or her people. Youth have a powerful voice. We need to use it.