I first made these comments in discussion with students and community members following the presentation of a fellow Syrian student at Monmouth College, Mark Ghaith. The International Club at Monmouth College has sponsored a series of talks, War Stories, by students who come from countries that have been, or are now, in conflict: Palestine, Northern Ireland, Ghana and Syria. Dr. Bren Tooley asked me to write up my remarks, which were well received by the large audience. I hope to expand upon these remarks in future. Also, I would like to note that I have both Syrian and U.S. citizenship and thus use ‘we’ in the final paragraph below when I reference American citizens.
I would like to speak to the question pertaining to American perceptions of the people of Syria, be they those seeking refuge or those clinging onto the remnants of their country and their homes. It is, I admit, difficult for many Americans to understand that Syria existed long before its birth on American television screens and throughout the world’s media outlets five years ago– but very few facts are as crucial for people to understand as this. The similarities of the day-to- day lives and concerns of Americans and Syrians before the war can never be born out by watching the news on a war, and when this is forgotten; a grossly skewed image of an entire people can seem as straightforward an image as any on offer.
As Mark Ghaith pointed out in his talk, the U.S. department of state classified Syria as the 5th safest country in the world mere months before the start of the vicious war that is now all that Syria is known for. Recent estimates now have Syria as the second most dangerous country on earth. Yes, it is indeed easier to think that my beloved country has always resembled the ugly face of this war than it is to grasp the true entailments of such a shift in its level of safety.
Prior to this war, explosions were what I called the sound of fireworks at celebrations, gunshots were things I saw in the movies, war was why I had an Iraqi friend in school, sectarianism was a thing in Lebanon that I couldn’t really understand, and suffering was what I felt when I had too much homework. Syria was never perfect, but it was a home Syrians thought they could perfect. Less than two years into the once peaceful uprising, explosions became why I got anxious until I’ve called everyone I knew to have been in the area in which they occurred, gunshots became a call for cover and a sign that I may have to leave my country behind soon, war is why I left it, and suffering is what I feel now; when I miss a people and a home that no longer exist. Believe me when I say that no group of people on the face of this planet is in a better position to appreciate the costs of terrorism, the costs of totalitarianism, of sectarian hatred, and of theocratic ideology than the Syrians mourning the loss of their nation. We paid these costs in the bedrooms that burned, in the neighborhoods that collapsed, and in the people whom we’ll never see again. Conflating Syrians seeking refuge and a new home with Islamic terrorists is tantamount to calling Native Americans white supremacists. We must not be made to answer for the very crimes that were committed against us.
On Education: 5 years ago, the Syrian people began to realize the possibility of a better political life. Many of them took to the streets, demanding a government that better represented their collective interests and capturing the attention of the United States. But rather than flooding their country with our best ideas, we flooded it with our most lethal weapons. Rather than sending them the tools for Democracy, we sent them the tools for destruction. We did not send them our lessons and thoughts about elections, federalism, unitary governments, civil liberties, civil rights, secularism and equality. We sent them guns, missiles, and bombs with some instructions on how to use them and less instructions on why to use them and what to strive for. The decision to send arms rather than ideas cost the people of Syria both their revolution and their country. It is time we correct this mistake and offer those who have survived these weapons the education they deserve.
Monmouth College, Class of 2017 (political science major; physics minor)
Elias Shammas is a Syrian-American student at Monmouth College where he is majoring in political science after having completed his minor in physics. He left Syria in July of 2012 when he was 18 years old along with his mother and younger sister who now reside in Paris as a result of the outbreak of civil war. His father was unable to leave his small food-distribution company totally behind and now lives alternating between Damascus and Paris to see his family. Elias is a vocal critic of the Syrian civil war and the role the international community has played in sustaining it.