Monday, September 21, 2015

Apple #719: People Leaving Syria

Like most of you, I've been hearing more and more news reports about the refugees who've left Syria.  I was kind of taking it in, kind of not. Then I heard one news report on the radio say that an estimated 5,000 people are leaving per day. Each day.  That number stunned me so much, I decided to find out more.

My big question was, if you were in charge of a country where people were so desperate to leave that 5,000 people each day would rather abandon their homes, the places they grew up, the food and the customs and the music and their friends and their family and their places of worship and the places where family members are buried -- they would rather leave all that, and put themselves in the hands of complete strangers to guide them into completely foreign lands and risk being taken advantage of, kidnapped, raped, or left to suffocate in a truck, or who knows what else -- 5,000 people each day would  rather risk all of that than to stay in your country, wouldn't you start to think that maybe something's wrong with the way you're running your country?

Mm, apparently not if you're the guy in charge of Syria.

Syrians in a refugee tent in Nizip, Turkey in 2013.  Apparently, Bashar Al-Assaad would rather blow up his country than have these people stay in it. Just look at those threatening children.
(Photo from Reuters, sourced from PRI)

I don't want to give you a history of all that's happened in Syria.  Lots of other sources out there have done a much better job of that than I could (see Sources at the end of this entry).  Instead, I'm going to give you some facts here & there that you might not know (I didn't know these things).  Because everybody's saying this is the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.

In reading about the refugee situation, I discovered I got kind of tone deaf to all the numbers being tossed around. They're all so big, it doesn't take long before they start to get meaningless.  I had to find reference points for those numbers so I could get a picture of just how big they are.  So I'll give you some of those numbers along with the reference points, too.

I know this map is hard to read, and it's outdated from 2012, but my point is the arrows. They're pointing to all countries on all sides of Syria. Meaning that people are taking any and every route possible to get out of the country.
(Map from somewhere on News Aggregator)

The Numbers

  • Syria is about the size of Arizona. 
  • Arizona's total population is about 6.7 million people.
  • Syria's total population -- difficult to estimate given how many people are leaving -- is somewhere around 22 million people.
  • 22 million people is everybody who lives in Florida plus everybody who lives in Iowa.
  • Since 2011 when the civil war started, an estimated 2 to 3 million people have left Syria.  That's somewhere between all of Houston leaving the country, or all of Chicago leaving the country.
  • Millions more people have not left Syria but have been displaced from their homes. This is a nice way of saying their houses got bombed or destroyed, or their farmland was burned, or there's no longer any usable water, or for some other drastic reason they had to leave home and find someplace else to live.
  • That number is estimated to be anywhere from 4 million to 11 million people.
  • 4 million people is all of Los Angeles plus more.  11 million people is all of New York City plus all of Chicago.  Looking for someplace else to live, all at once.
  • Imagine everyone in all the five boroughs of New York leaving their homes and looking for someplace else to live. Because all five boroughs have been bombed or destroyed or have otherwise become unlivable. Oh, plus all of Chicago too.
  • Another way to think of that 11 million is that it equals half of the entire country's population. 

One of the refugee camps specifically for those who have left Syria. This one is in Za'atari, Jordan, as of 2013. The camp is 30,000 square meters and can hold up to 113,000 people. Over 600,000 refugees from Syria have come to Jordan.
(Photo from the US State Department, sourced from Wikipedia

What's So Terrible?

  • For that many people to leave, things must be pretty bad.
  • The dude who runs Syria, Bashar Al-Assad, is pissed off and he is bombing his own people.

Looks like your basic nerd, doesn't he, with the sleeves of his jacket too long and everything. He was trained to be an ophthalmologist.  But apparently this is what a desperate villainous dictator looks like.
(Photo from Bashar Al-Assad's personal website)

  • He rules his country in one of those pseudo-democracies that are really dictatorships that also have a religious component.  Since he's in charge, his religion is the only acceptable one to practice, and he denies various rights to or persecutes people who practice religions other than his.
  • His religion is a small branch of Islam (Alawite).  Other Islamic branches which have more people, both in the world and in his country, his government has repressed in some way.  
    • For example, political parties that are allied with one of the unacceptable Islamic religions or some other religion are illegal, and if you're found doing political things associated with those illegal parties, you could be jailed or worse. People have been beaten, kidnapped, disappeared, etc.
  • So in 2011, a bunch of people attempted their own Arab Spring and rebelled against his government.
  • His father used to be in charge of Syria, and when his father faced an uprising from another Islamic group, he dealt with that by destroying entire neighborhoods where that group was centered. I mean, he leveled everything like a tornado.

This is Bashar's dad, Hafez. How many people must suffer because of Bashar's daddy issues?
(Photo from Bashar Al-Assad's personal website)

  • So Bashar tried to do the same thing. He got his army to kill or kidnap or "disappear" the people involved in that revolutionary effort.  But when he tried his dad's technique, it didn't work. His attempt at repression backfired.  It only made the rebels fight back harder.  And then so did he.
  • He's bombed his own cities, he's burned people's farms, he's had people kidnapped or murdered, his army has raped women and killed children, and then of course you remember the sarin gas incidents when he gassed his own people.  
  • He got rid of the sarin after the international community made all kinds of threats, but reports say he's now using chlorine and ammonia.  Plus, he's recently gotten funding from Russia so he's dropping even more bombs -- including barrels full of ammunition dropped from helicopters -- onto places that may or may not house rebel forces.  So he's killing or injuring lots of civilians in the process.
  • Meanwhile, ISIS has seen this chaos and destruction as a prime opportunity for them.  So they've moved into Syria and they're conducting their brutal recruitment tactics with their lovely beheadings and so on, forcing those people whose heads they have not cut off to join them.  
  • Hospitals have been destroyed, water lines have been blown up so there's not much clean water, in some towns there aren't enough people to bury the dead, and as for food, even before the war people were having to smuggle things in through underground tunnels and now those tunnels have been blown up in places so it's very hard to get decent food, or for anyone to deliver supplies to them.

Syrian residents in a refugee camp within Damascus waiting for food to be distributed. These are people who have left their home somewhere in Syria and come to this camp for the displaced in Damascus. The food aid being given out is not from their own government but from the UN and other relief agencies.
(Photo from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency / Getty, sourced from US News)

  • There have been attempts at a peace agreement, but the rebels don't believe that Bashar will keep any agreement he makes, so nothing sticks.
  • With no end of the destruction in sight, more and more people are saying, Time to GTFO.

The Initiating Event

  • What triggered all of this?  What was  the event that set all this in motion?  
  • Some teenagers painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall.
  • The teenagers were arrested and beaten and tortured.  Always the appropriate response to graffiti.
  • Demonstrators protested.
  • Government security forces shot at the protestors and killed several.
  • That only led to more demonstrations, and ultimately thousands of people filled the streets demanding Bashar's resignation.
  • But of course Bashar would not give up his power.  Apparently he would rather destroy his entire country than give up his power.
  • All this from some words that some teenagers painted on a wall.  
  • What did they write? "The people want to topple the regime" and "It's your turn, doctor."

This graffiti, painted in 2011 during the initial uprisings, says "Down with Bashar."
(Photo from jan Sefti on Flickr, sourced from Wikimedia)

Syrian children in a refugee camp in Za'atari, Jordan
(Photo by Jeff J Mitchell / Getty)

This page lists all the organizations (primarily US) that are providing some form of aid or support to Syrian citizens or refugees.

Summaries of the Conflict
BBCNews, Syria: The story of the conflict, March 12, 2015
BBCNews, Syria's war
The Washington Post, 9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask, August 29, 2013
The Numbers
CIA World Factbook, Syria
World Population Review, Syria Population 2015
CNN, War has forced half of Syrians from their homes. Here's where they've gone, September 11, 2015
The Situation
The New York Times, For Those Who Remain in Syria, Daily Life is a Nightmare, September 15, 2015
The Economist,  Syria's Humanitarian Crisis, June 8, 2015
Newsweek, Syrian Refugees: All You Need to Know, September 17, 2015
The New York Review of Books, Syria's Refugees: The Catastrophe, October 10, 2013
The Spark
The New York Times, A Faceless Teenage Refugee Who Helped Ignite Syria's War, Februrary 8, 2013
CNN, Daraa: The spark that lit the Syrian flame, March 1, 2012
Open Doors, Graffiti on a Wall Sparked Syrian Conflict, March 9, 2015


  1. Juliet, thanks for taking the time to research and think through this. The situation is staggering and you really helped me see what is happening. We really need to keep this in thought and prayer IMHO and this helps a lot!

  2. Thanks for taking the time to tell me that, Mike. It's good to know when an entry hits home with somebody, especially when it's about important stuff like this. And yes, let's hope the situation improves for all these displaced civilians soon.


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