Why the US should welcome Syrian refugees

There's a kind of tight, choking cough that parents of young children know well. Croupy and asthmatic, that cough used to send me running for the nebulizer when my kids were little. But there were no nebulizers or emergency rooms in the Za'atri refugee camp in northern Jordan last Christmas Eve.

I kept hearing that cough from a little girl of perhaps 3 or 4, sitting across from me in the trailer I was visiting. I worried that her chest, pumping like an accordion, would seize up right before my eyes.

That's the first feeling that you get in a refugee camp, even one run as well as Za'atari: You're overwhelmed by the volume of people and the level of need.

Asma'a Rashed in the trailer where she reads to kids each week at the Za'atari refugee camp in Northern Jordan
Source: Elizabeth MacBride
Asma'a Rashed in the trailer where she reads to kids each week at the Za'atari refugee camp in Northern Jordan

There are at least 4 million Syrian refugees officially registered across the Middle East and Europe. Jordan, a tiny country of 8 million, will have an estimated 937,000 refugees by December. Europe is dealing with an onslaught of refugees, and more will be arriving soon in the United States: Secretary of State John Kerry announced that it would accept 85,000 migrants next year, including many Syrians.

One of the first responses as the refugees settle in is likely to be fear. Research shows an economic backlash against refugees can cloak something deeper: cultural unease, nativism or even racism. But over time, refugees can benefit societies.

"There's an incredible amount of talent, and wisdom and accrued experience," said Ronit Avni, 38, a serial social entrepreneur working on an education enterprise, LocalizedED, to deliver university-level online training and education, in local languages, to refugees and others. "These are people who are capable of thriving and being full-fledged members of whatever society they live in."

The Australian Bureau of Statistics earlier this month released a study showing "humanitarian migrants," many Afghanis and Iraqis, were more likely to start businesses than other kinds of migrants. The entrepreneurial spirit of people who have been through a forced flight is almost mythic. Immigrants or their children founded 40 percent of America's Fortune 500 companies, according to the Partnership for a New American Economy.

Programs that enable refugees to take a productive place for themselves — or return home — offer some charity and more empowerment. Aid that works in the long run tends to be grassroots, technology-driven and enabled, and directed by the people in need, say experts. Many such programs, including microloan and microequity programs, are not even that expensive.

"Great things can start from nothing," said Rana Dajani, associate professor of molecular biology at Hashemite University in Zarqa, Jordan, who started a program called "We Love Reading" in the Za'atari camp. Recognized as one of the best ideas worldwide for educating refugees, "We Love Reading" has spread to 25 countries. Deceptively simple, it helps instill — or re-instill — confidence. A volunteer refugee, often a woman, establishes a library with donated books, runs a story time, and builds community support from parents.

There are other models too: The Karam Foundation runs workshops for a group of 300 Syrian high school refugee students in the Salam School in Reyhanli, Turkey. The school includes a computer lab, seen as crucial by its supporters.

Kids "connect to the world, supplement their education, see what others like them are doing and collaborate to solve problems — and know today and tomorrow they have paths to a future they want," said Christopher Schroeder, a U.S. Internet executive, board advisor and investor who helped fund the center, by email.

With the right kind of aid that restores a sense of control, displaced people are often more resilient than we expect.

Asma'a Rashed, whom I also met at Za'atari, is the kind of refugee the world might be tempted to write off, or to fear as a burden. Married at 14 in her Syrian village, she had two children by the time she was in her late teens, and no high school degree. Now 21, she reads to as many as 100 children at a time. Running a library gave her the confidence to write for the camp newspaper. She was starting to pitch stories via her mobile phone — for pay — to a Turkish magazine.

"I could never think these things would have taken place," she told me through the translator. "But I am very happy."

Just a few weeks ago, a camp school asked Rashed to start teaching. The seeds of the job were planted last year when Rashed began reading stories to the children living there, including the little girl I was worried about. Rashed sat at the front of the trailer with a small stack of books, and began a story about electricity shortages. As she listened, the little girl relaxed and stopped coughing. "Suddenly, suddenly, suddenly," Rashed said in Arabic, building the tension. "The power comes back."

Commentary by Elizabeth MacBride, a freelance writer and editor who writes about entrepreneurs and the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter @editoremacb.