Escape to America: A Syrian Christian Perspective

By Stephen Herreid Published on April 4, 2016

In the midst of a much-publicized “refugee crisis,” Christians in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East have struggled for recognition as the group most targeted for persecution.

“For the last five years, the general mood among my family and the Syrian community in Pittsburgh has been one of increasing hopelessness,” explains Marlo Safi, the daughter of first-generation Syrian-Americans studying at the University of Pittsburgh. Her church, St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is part of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East. Safi and her fellow worshippers trace their roots to the early Christian communities of first century Antioch.*

“What people don’t understand is, to ISIS, Christians are the scum of the Earth,” Marlo explains. ISIS believes Christians “need to be exterminated, they are the infidels. They are a targeted group that is easy to access in Syria: They live in small communities among fellow Christians, they worship at the same churches. If we don’t help them, we are assisting in ISIS’s agenda, and we will have blood on our hands.”

“My family has been grappling with what little options we have to bring our family in Syria to the U.S.,” she says, “because we certainly don’t want them going to the refugee camps in Europe due to the high risk of brutalization by fellow refugees that Christians must live amongst. My mother frantically reaches out to me begging for me to ask anyone I know who works in Pennsylvania politics such as Rep. Tim Murphy to help us bring our family over as soon as they can, but, unfortunately, it’s a process that takes years regardless of minority status, which Syrian Christians do have.”

Marlo has 4 grandparents, 11 aunts and uncles and over 20 cousins still in Syria . Most of the cousins are under 15. “The news we hear from them is often chilling,” she says. Family members have had only bread and salt to eat, while someone set off a bomb in front of the home of an aunt and her 4 young sons. One of her mother’s cousins was shot and killed in Homs.

What have you and your family been doing to intervene on behalf of persecuted Christians in Syria?

My family and I have been doing everything in our power to help bring Syrian Christians to the U.S. or at least provide aid to the ones still in Syria. Unfortunately, most of our efforts have been in vain. My mother and I have reached out to congressmen and local politicians, but we are told the process will still take years and the only benefit we have is that my parents are both U.S. citizens. I’ve tried raising money through fundraisers on campus, but money itself can’t make living any safer in Syria for Christians and certainly doesn’t assure survival. Family friends have opened up their homes to their families who have been fortunate enough to make it to the U.S.; we know a family that housed two families in their three-bedroom house for nearly a year.

As a Syrian Christian, what is your perspective on the current presidential election?

The next person to hold office dictates whether my people, Syrian Christians, are permitted the right to live. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are more concerned with climate change and free college than they are with Christians in Syria, or even Christians in America. I’m a devout Ted Cruz supporter. He has been the only candidate to make Syrian Christians an issue in his campaign.

I have heard nothing but repulsion for this from the left; I have even had professors who I highly respected mentioned how “un-classy” it was of Cruz to focus on helping Christians and not Syrian Muslims. If the so-called intellectuals don’t even realize the plight of Syrian Christians, who will? I believe that, if Ted Cruz, or any Republican, make it to office, Syrian Christians will get the chance our president has neglected to give them.

Since the rise of ISIS, Pope Francis has been an active proponent of the mass migration of Syrians into Europe and even the U.S. through the Mexican border. How do Syrian Christians feel about this?

I can speak on behalf of my own family and say that Pope Francis, while he is a man of God, has not played an active role in helping Syrian Christians. His “borders are not Christian” remark bothered me for multiple reasons, and my family has agreed.

We need borders because of the sexual assaults in Cologne by migrants who cannot be held accountable for their actions because of shoddy or non-existent documentation. We need security and structure because Syrian Christians, for the most part, are able to provide the required documentation to come to the U.S., but because they’re such a small minority, are put at the back of the line because of the mass influx of Muslims.

The “Christian” thing to do here is to redirect our attention to Christians. Focusing on Christians from the land where Jesus himself walked. The land where Christian heritage lies, where century old artifacts that Christians have relished were annihilated by ISIS. The Christians in Syria beg the man who speaks on behalf of God on Earth to help them.

You are relatively safe in the U.S., as the daughter of two Syrian-American citizens. Nevertheless, do you or any of your Syrian friends in America ever fear you are in danger yourselves?

My parents fear for me on a daily basis. I’m a Syrian-American woman, and I’m also a conservative. My parents fear that my gender, religion and ideology may attract the violence of radicals to the point where my parents have warned me about what I write about in The Pitt News, the student newspaper I write for. They have warned me about writing about ISIS, Islam or sexism in the Middle East. The most “extreme” topic I’ve written about is actually sexism in the Middle East, but I made sure not to mention Islam directly at any point so that my family doesn’t fear for me.

My mother has been called an infidel, and a “Jew” by Muslim women for befriending a more moderate Muslim woman who was our neighbor. In the Middle East, Jews are despised, which is evident by the violence and daily slaughter of Jews at the Israeli-Palestinian border, so being called a Jew by a Muslim is a term of hatred. We are not a welcomed minority in the U.S. or Syria.

In your opinion, who in America is most supportive of Syrian Christians?

The most sympathetic to the plight of Syrian Christians has been evangelicals. The very people that the left torments and disparages have been the only demographic to listen to the strife our families have faced, to always ask what they can do and how they can help.

It has not been politicians, the supposed public servants. It has been our neighbors who attend church every Sunday, whose children attend Catholic school to learn the word of God. It has been my friends at school who think life is sacred enough to attend pro-life marches. It has been my family friends at our monthly Arabic-Christian Fellowship meetings.  They have been the only people to not only ask about my family, but give their prayers and their help.

What can we do to help?

There are many things we can do to help Syrian Christians, and the first thing is prayer. Pray for the children who are being raised in war zones and conflict to still feel God’s love and mercy and praying  for the end of this war to near.

We must also convene to assure our voices are heard; that the Christians in Syria are important to Americans and that those who represent us must do so by helping Christians find safety. There are also many charities to donate to that will provide food, medical aid and spiritual training to Syrians in need of our help, such as the Iraqi Christian Relief Council.

 

*This sentence was expanded to clarify.

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