This story was rebroadcast as part of our best-of 2015 series. It was originally reported in September 2015.
As hundreds of thousands of refugees flee Syria for Europe, an Overland Park, Kansas, nonprofit that provides humanitarian aid continues its work to stabilize the situation inside the war-torn country.
The number of asylum-seeking Syrians in the United States is small – just 1,500 since the conflict began four years ago – and pressure is mounting to accept more refugees.
But Syrian-born Kansas Citians aren’t sure it’s the best way to help.
“We will encourage them to accept the refugees and so forth for a temporary solution,” says Syrian Relief and Development founder Jihad Qaddour, “but the main solution is really to find a safer place inside Syria to let the people stay there.”
Every Syrian-American has ties to conflict back home
Qaddour, who teaches electrical engineering at Illinois State University during the week and spends weekends in Overland Park with his family, has lived in the United States for more than 30 years.
So have Najat Zrieh and Rouyda Ahmad, two Johnson County housewives who immigrated here in the 1980s.
“We used to visit Syria, if not every year, it’s every other year,” says Ahmad. “(We) enjoyed it. Now we don’t know if we’re ever going to see our country ... again.”
Worse, says Zrieh, is worrying about relatives still living in Syria.
“I can’t live without talking to my mom daily,” says Zrieh, who uses Whatsapp and social media to keep track of her relatives abroad. “If they don’t answer, that means something’s wrong.”
It’s a feeling Mohammad Taha knows well: earlier this month his cousin paid a smuggler $2,000 to get him to Europe.
“For all last week I was worried about him until we heard the news he reached Italy,” says Taha, an internist at the University of Kansas Hospital.
Taha came to Kansas City in 2002 for his residency and never left. His hometown, Al-Zabadani, has been torn apart by war.
“Every Syrian has relatives or friends who has been subjected to this crisis,” Taha says. “Either they are refugees, or they have been tortured or detained. You find this problem in each household.”
Take Taha’s brother, who also studied to be a doctor.
“He wants to work, but he has to fulfill his military service,” Taha says. “It’s mandatory over there. So he had to flee the country because he cannot stay. If he stays, they would take him, draft him to serve in the military service and he has to fight – even though he’s a surgeon.”
So Taha’s brother fled to Egypt, where he isn’t allowed to work. That means Taha must support him, along with their sister and parents.
Taha was willing to help his cousin, too, the one who just escaped to Italy. But in Syria, his cousin had been a well-paid computer engineer. He didn’t want to rely on his American relatives.
That’s true of most Syrians, Taha says.
“They don’t want to be refugees,” he says. “They just want to be productive people.”
Many Syrians are refugees within their own country
Earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry announced the United States will increase the total number of refugees it accepts in 2017 from 70,000 to 100,000. Most of those new spots for migrants would go to Syrians.
But Taha isn’t sure that’s the right approach.
“Taking in refugees is fine, but you know how many refugees in Syria?” says Taha. “Half the population are refugees. How many are you going to take? You can change the lives of a few hundred, maybe thousand, but what about the rest?”
Qaddour says with the spotlight on Syrians fleeing their war-torn country, it’s easy to forget how many are displaced within Syria.
“What are you going to do with the other 14 or 15 million?” Qaddour says. “It’s not a solution.”
For four years, Syrian Relief and Development has been building hospitals and medical clinics in Syria. But those facilities have been the frequent target of barrel bomb attacks.
“It was a systematic act from the regime to hit all the medical facilities, all the marketplaces, all the gas stations, all the schools,” says Qaddour.
Qaddour says the fighting has kept some Syrian kids out of school since civil war broke out in 2011. Now he’s worried an entire generation of Syrians will be lost.
“And guess who’s getting the advantage of that? ISIS. Because ISIS attracts those people who are not educated,” says Qaddour.
Qaddour tells colleagues who ask for his take on the Syrian refugee crisis humanitarian aid isn’t enough. As millions of Syrians are trying to figure out where they’ll live, Qaddor and the others involved with SRD want the United States and the international community to intervene in Syria.
Stop the Assad regime, he says, stop the refugee crisis.
Elle Moxley is a reporter for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.