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Panelists focus on Syrian humanitarian crisis

October 8, 2015

Syria panelists
Jennifer Butte-Dahl (right) speaks about her experience in Lesbos, Greece. Kathie Friedman and Neil McFarland (left to right) and Mark S. Ward (Skyping in) also participated in the panel about the humanitarian crisis in Syria.


For Dr. Neil McFarland, UW Medicine, it was talking with a college professor living in a Jordanian refugee camp that left an impression. Bombs had destroyed the man’s home, forcing him to flee the country.

The staggering number of refugees hit Jennifer Butte-Dahl upon her return to Seattle in September, after volunteering with Shelterbox on the island of Lesbos in Greece. The U.S. had agreed to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees — about the same number of refugees who had arrived on the island in just the last few days. Butte-Dahl is the director of the Jackson School’s M.A. in Applied International Studies.

Several stories told by the panelists at the Jackson School Oct. 6 event, “Focus on Syria: A Humanitarian Crisis,” were deeply personal, with a stinging realization that the people who have been displaced from Syria are not unlike the middle-class Americans who attended the panel. Syrian youths are educated and tech-savvy. Butte-Dahl said she is now getting social media updates from the many refugees who became friends.

Associate Professor Kathie Friedman, an expert in human migration in the Jackson School, said the obligations of countries in Europe to accept refugees are not clear-cut. She cited the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which requires countries to protect refugees who are on their territory. But she also said that people fleeing war are not always included in the refugee definition. And a state doesn’t have to meet any refugee obligations if it can prevent refugees from reaching its borders in the first place.

Friedman said that a deal to impose refugee quotas in Europe, as well as to speed up the registration process and help countries that neighbor Syria, have eased the border crisis. But migration will continue, she said. “Refugees need to be able to work legally. They have skills and education and can support themselves if given the chance.”

Syria panelists

Panelists visit with members of the audience after the Jackson School event, “Focus on Syria: A Humanitarian Crisis,” on Oct. 6, 2015.

MAAIS Director Butte-Dahl introduced Jonathan Scanlon, senior advocacy advisor at Oxfam America, who urged attendees to contact members of Congress to ask them to accept 100,000 refugees. Other panelists offered caveats to this request: Professor Friedman said that besides continuing to fund security clearances, refugees also need the resources and cash assistance to integrate properly. She said that after the Vietnam War, cash assistance helped refugees for three years. Today, refugees only receive from three to eight months of assistance.

“There are a lot of people trying to do the right thing,” Butte-Dahl concluded. “We need to look at how we can get them on their feet.”

Jackson School Director Reşat Kasaba moderated the panel. Joining the panel via Skype was Mark S. Ward, director of the Syrian Transition Assistance and Response Team (START) at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey. At his request, his comments were not recorded.

By Kristina Bowman,