Report of the Spring 2013 Workshop

The Syrian Refugee Crisis
and Lessons from the Iraqi Refugee Experience

Report Foreward from the Director of the Institute for Iraqi Studies

Sitting comfortably in Boston, even after the bombing of the Marathon in April 2013, the dire circumstances of Syrian refu- gees may be hard to fathom. Credible estimates reveal that one of every six Syrians has fled their home, or what remains of their home, often with little more than what they might carry in their arms or wear on their back. Millions have sought safety in other towns and villages, and many have been forced to flee several times to escape the crossfire of rival opposition fighters and government forces. About one and half million Syrians now find a measure of safety in neighboring coun- tries: some in the relative order of well-run camps, but many others are not nearly so fortunate. Even after escaping from predatory militias and vengeful military assaults, victims con- tinue to be prey for criminals, sexual predators, sectarian vigi- lantes or allies of the Syrian government.

A number of governments that have pledged contributions have failed to deliver fully on their promises, and neighboring countries, not least Jordan and Lebanon, are strapped for ade- quate resources and justifiably fear that violence inside Syria will spread to their own citizens. The Syrian refugee crisis is a humanitarian crisis on the scale of some of the world’s worst natural disasters of recent years, and this man-made disaster threatens structural political damage far from its epicenter.

Borders may appear as definitive lines on a map, but family ties, tribal links, sectarian affinities and trading ties routinely transcend Syria’s borders. Along the Syria-Lebanon border, for instance, one finds Lebanese villages within Syrian territory, and the Iraq-Syria border is notoriously porous. In my own travels decades ago I well recall visiting Turkish border towns, such as Kilis, which survived as entrepots for trade with Syria and Iraq.

In March, the Institute for Iraqi Studies hosted a workshop in order to gain a shared understanding of the disaster, as well as bring insights to bear from Iraq’s recent refugee tragedy, which at its height directly affected one of every six Iraqis (the same ratio as Syria today). Nearly three million Iraqis remain displaced or as refugees, more than two decades after the up- rising of 1991 and a decade following the U.S.-U.K. invasion, according to 2012 data cited in this report (p. 22). The Iraqi case is a reminder that what is happening today to Syrians is likely to have longstanding consequences. In neighboring Lebanon, savage violence during the 1975-90 civil war precipitated popu- lation displacements that radically diminished the richly diverse human tapestry of the country. Many villages and urban quarters formerly known for inter-sectarian cohabitation remain far less diverse than they were before the civil war.

A thoughtful and informed group of participants contributed to making the March 29 workshop successful. Summaries of their presentation are found in this report. Several participants were able to share fresh data and offer observations from recent field- work. [Please consult the institute website ( for the complete streaming audio archive for the workshop.] The opening presentation by Vicky Kelberer offers an incisive overview of the Syrian refugee crisis. A video of her presentation is also found on the website along with accompanying graphics.

A follow-up workshop is planned for late September at Boston University. The program and other details will be posted on the website in late August.

The Institute for Iraqi Studies is housed in Boston University’s Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations, which provides essential administrative and logistical support. In particular, Michael Carroll, the Assistant Director, has been a steady and creative collaborator. In addition, the sure-footed Mikaela Ringquist, program assistant with the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies, which is based at Boston University, has generously donated her time to a variety of Iraq-focused programs, in- cluding a film series in 2012-13 and the March 29 workshop.

Three talented people agreed to serve as rapporteurs for the workshop: Dr. Sarah Tobin is Mellon Post Doctoral Fellow in Islamic Studies at the Department of Anthropology, Wheaton College and she led the team of rapporteurs. Ekaterina Anderson and Lisa Jenkins are both Ph.D. students in the Department of Anthropology at Boston University and they both contributed to the report. Dr. Tobin is the primary author of the report, and the report very much reflects her devoted labor as well as her perceptive insights.

Augustus Richard Norton
Boston, May 15, 2013

IIS Announcements

Can Iraq be Saved?

Read the rapporteur's report from the November 19, 2014 lecture and listen to streaming audio.

Sexual and Gender Based Violence against Syrian Refugees

Read the just-published executive summary from the May 2, 2014, workshop.

The Syrian Refugee Crisis and the Contiguous States

Read the just-published report from the January 31, 2014, workshop.

Beth Murphy joins as Non-Resident Fellow

The Institute is please to announce the appointment of Beth Murphy as Non-Resident Visual Arts Fellow.

JANUARY 31 2014 9am to 4:30pm: Workshop on the Syrian Refugee Crisis

CURA, 10 Lenox Street

Brookline, MA

This workshop focuses on the impact of the Syrian refugee crisis on the contiguous countries: Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.


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