Since 2011, the ongoing civil war between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and rebel groups under the Syrian National Coalition has killed more than 300,000 people and displaced 11 million more from their homes.
Over five million Syrians have fled as refugees, seeking shelter in nations all across the world, from Western Europe to the United States. As many as six million Syrians remain displaced in their native country or in neighboring nations, including Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan.
For professor Sarah A. Tobin, associate director of Middle East studies at Brown University, the Syrian refugee crisis illustrates how popular images of resilience can help shape international responses to humanitarian crises.
On Friday, Tobin talked with students from the UW's Middle East Center and Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies about how religion, culture, and socioeconomics all work together to determine how countries in the West have responded to the Syrian refugee crisis. She said that while Syrian refugees may represent resilience against oppression, they have also become symbols of personal transformation in the face of adversity.
"Resilient refugees are understood not as political agents, such as Syrians fighting the Assad government, but as those that are best able to accommodate and work through the conditions of their suffering," Tobin said.
"I don't consider myself to have any scholarship on the matter, but I learned a lot from [Tobin's] talk," said Burcu Ege, a UW student who attended the talk and traveled to Jordan herself. "I thought it covered the refugee crisis' successes and its shortcomings."
According to Tobin, integrating refugees into society is a costly responsibility which can often fall to the private sector rather than the public sector. For Syria's refugees, this can mean relying on international corporations to provide work.
"Most active refugees are considered beneficial to the community," Tobin said. "For the Syrians, there is a lot of work involved with being a refugee."
Out of the 80,000 refugees that make up Jordan's Al Zaatari Syrian refugee camp, more than 5,000 women and girls earn income through a variety of "work for cash" programs, in which they make everything from school uniforms to reusable bags in exchange for benefits like job experience and educational opportunities. These programs, provided by private corporations like Safeway and Starbucks, are unregulated by any government entity.
Such economic initiatives have raised concerns about refugee workers creating overly competitive job markets in their adopted countries.
"On the upside, an influx of a new population is that you have buying power and [they are] otherwise contributing their money into the economy," Tobin said. "The jury is still out, but on the whole, the Jordanians feel that while there have been costs, it's still okay."
Transitioning into the workforce can come with a number of costs for refugees. In Arab countries like Jordan, few Syrian refugees have access to citizenship outside of marriage and even fewer can afford a college education for their children.
"[Some] children were born in camps and raised in camps and haven't experienced life outside the camps," Tobin said. "Syrians have the ability to get a smile, wink, nod to get access to things. But Syrians have to pay the same fees we would pay for higher education and enroll in universities."
While an average person will retain their refugee status for an average of 17 years, Tobin believed that refugees can thrive so long as they are allowed to become an integral part of their adopted societies.
"One can say that resilience is endless and the well of possibilities will never run dry," Tobin said. "Resilience is not being seen as a one-off, punctuated moment, but in terms of the ecology and economy of a system and the resilience of people within it."