Syrian refugee crisis hits Lee family close to home
An estimated 9 million Syrians have been forced to seek refuge in other countries and other parts of Syria since civil war broke out in 2011, according to research conducted by the European University Institute.
For many Lee students, this crisis might feel like it is every inch as far from them as the 6,395 mile distance between Cleveland, Tenn. and Syria, but for students like the Douhne family, it is very close to home.
Timothy, Philip and Martha Douhne, along with their parents Solomon and Widad, fear that the United States' perception of the crisis may be even further from the truth.
Solomon Douhne came to the United States in 1969 with help from Robert O' Bannon, namesake of Lee University's O'Bannon Hall.
Douhne would later graduate from Lee with a degree in chemistry.
Douhne's three youngest children followed in his footsteps by attending Lee University.
The Douhne's investment in the crisis comes from a strong personal connection to the situation.
Widad has four siblings living in the Syrian city of Damascus.
'My brother's house fell to the ground and my sister's house was vandalized,' Widad said. 'They have to move from place to place to find safety.'
If electricity allows, Widad contacts her family via Skype every day.
Senior Timothy Douhne, the eldest Douhne attending Lee, recounts these interactions with obvious distress.
'When Mom talks to [the family] on Skype you hear loud explosions in the background,' Timothy said. 'They shrug it off, but there are literally bombs going off around their houses.'
Solomon said the threat of violence is imminent in Widad's neighborhood.
'Every day there are rockets sent to Damascus,' Solomon said. 'Anybody could be killed in the streets.'
So far, their family in Syria has elected not to go to the refugee camps.
'The health of the community and sanitation is very poor,' Timothy said. 'There is a lot of rape and theft.'
Christian Syrians, like Widad's family, are virtually non-existent in the camps.
'It's more like a jail, because they won't let them go back into the country,' Widad said. 'Many would rather die under rocket fire than go to a refugee camp.'
Contrary to some reports, the Douhnes claim that efforts to leave the country are often ineffective and dangerous.
'There are no legal ways for Syrian refugees to get into another country,' Solomon said.
Solomon suggests that European countries are not welcoming refugees into their countries, but are instead being forced to comply with them when they show up at their borders.
Widad's sister has been waiting to have her visa approved for 15 years, but has still been unsuccessful.
'This is an everyday thing,' Timothy said. 'We ride the ups and downs of what is going on over there, because they are our family. They're our blood.'
'It breaks my heart to see this going on with my family and to see the effects it has on Mom and Dad,' said sophomore Martha Douhne, the youngest Douhne.
Martha described having to be sensitive when talking about the crisis with her family members who have relatives in Syria.
'My cousin's brother is in danger every day and I'm thankful that I don't have to worry about my brothers in the same way,' Martha said.
While the Douhnes struggle to find hope in the midst of Syria's upheaval, they believe that the prayers of Christians are effective.
'We need people to pray that God would protect the Christians and our family and all the people [of Syria],' said Widad.
In Timothy's theology class, each session was begun with prayer requests from the students.
'We prayed for my mother's family in particular and there were powerful results,' Timothy said.
He told a story of his aunt was pacing down the halls of her home one day, wondering if she should pick up her children from school. Feeling compelled to sit down, she narrowly missed a bullet passing through the window where she had previously been standing.
'God's working through miracles, through dreams, through prayer and through events like that and it's effective,' Timothy said.
He commented that the events of the crisis and his family's response have also affected their faith in Christ.
'We have watched their trust in God blossom in a way that is unreal when they talk about trusting him to find bread or fuel,' Timothy said. 'Seeing that here at home has grown our faith.'
Solomon recently returned from a trip to the Middle East where he performed ministry, as well as some personal investigation of his own, and believes that the news media as a whole has painted a very poor picture of the crisis in Syria.
According to the humanitarian group Mercy Corps, after four years, the conflict has claimed over 220,000 Syrian lives, about half of which are believed to be citizens.
Widespread bombings and a difficulty in acquiring food and medical treatment have prompted Syrians to flee their homes.
Nearly four million refugees have retreated to Syria's immediate neighbors: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq.
About 150,000 more Syrians have claimed asylum in the European Union, and Germany has accepted 85 percent of the refugee influx.
According to whitehouse.gov, the U.S. intends to take in another 10,000 refugees over the next fiscal year. As of Aug. 4, 2015, U.S. aid to the crisis has totaled $684,090,176.
Whether scattered across Syria or seeking safety across the border, close to 23 million Syrians are in serious need of humanitarian assistance.
Many Western news sources attribute this crisis to the Syrian government's refusal to comply with the demands of its people and the Free Syrian army, a rebel militia force that was founded by defected Syrian army officers at the start of the civil war in 2011, according to bbc.com.
This version, however, drastically varies from the perspective of Syrian immigrants like the Douhnes.
'What's happening there and what you hear on the news are not the same,' Solomon said. 'The Free Syrian army is a very small part of what is happening there.'
He suggests that the uprising was not incited by Syrian citizens, but rather by terrorist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) who came from other surrounding countries to dismantle the state of Syria.
Timothy explained this idea further.
'There was a protest and [foreign terrorists] got Syrian people involved,' Timothy said. 'It was as simple as inciting a mob mentality and the Syrian people are suffering for it.'
While in western news media the outbreak of civil war is styled as a domino effect, Solomon suggests that the uprising was pre-meditated.
'They were building camps in Jordan and Turkey before the war started,' Solomon said.
Solomon stressed that the Syrian government is given unfair condemnation in the situation.
'The Syrian government is blamed for the refugee crisis,' Solomon said, 'but the one to blame is ISIS.'
Martha reinforced her father's sentiments.
'When we were over there [in 2009] it was considered inappropriate to say his name [President Bashar Al-Assad] because he was so revered,' Martha said. 'It seems unlikely to me that the people would rebel just to rebel.'
Martha also worries that the refugees are being unjustly criticized.
'It's upsetting to watch people on social media [speak poorly] about my country when they don't know the story,' Martha said. 'They say things like 'Why don't they just stay in Syria? They can fight it out themselves,' but they don't realize that there are human beings behind the random faces you see on television.'
Solomon said the refugees are the victims.
The discrepancies between the accounts of the people of Syria and the reports of American news media and government publications make addressing the situation in Syria very complicated.
'This dichotomy comes from varying motives,' Timothy said. 'The people of ISIS have a motive, the people of Syria have a motive, the media has a motive, and all of those things are in conflict with one another.'
Timothy echoed his sister's appraisal of the situation by attributing much of the confusion to social media.
'A Youtube video can get as many hits as a video from the Wall Street Journal,' Timothy said. 'Someone can post something from Syria, say something about it and it will gain as much ground as a big newspaper article.'
The family hopes that students will make an effort to search for the truth about the Syrian refugee crisis.
'To understand what's going on, you have to really dig,' Solomon said. 'Listen to other international news sources.'
The Douhnes seek sources who are close to the scene. 'Mom uses resources like a Facebook page for a local suburb inside Damascus,' Timothy said. 'Locals post what's going on, where the danger is.'
Sophomore Political Science Major Nate Myers has taken it upon himself to find true facts about the crisis.
'The crisis is due to the expansion of ISIS's empire,' Myers said. 'People need to find a safe place so they are forced to cross international boundaries.'
Myers, whose accounts match the Douhne perspective almost exactly, claims that he gets most of his information from independent journalists.
The Douhnes encourage students to personalize the Syrian refugee crisis for themselves.
'Churches have been burned, Christians have been killed and millions have been displaced,' Solomon said. 'We should stop that.'
Timothy believes it's important to look at articles that are focused on stories, not just facts. 'And be careful of your sources,' he said.
Timothy believes regardless of which story one believes, everyone can agree that the refugees in Syria and all over the world should be assisted in their time of need.
'The conflicting stories are a real problem,' Timothy said, 'but it doesn't change the fact that we should provide humanitarian aid and love people.'