What we need to know about refugees

Story highlights

  • Gayle Lemmon: Most Syrian refugees want to return to their country
  • Decision to leave the country an extremely difficult one to make, she says

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the New York Times bestseller "Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield." The views expressed are her own.

(CNN)Syrian refugees are the subject of a great deal of discussion in the United States right now, a point underscored in this week's Republican presidential candidate debate.

"I'm not going to let Syrian refugees, any Syrian refugees in this country," said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, in comments that echoed the tone of the discussion Tuesday.
"We shouldn't have a program where we just say that we're going to take care of the world's refugees," said Sen. Rand Paul.
    Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
    His Senate colleague, Ted Cruz, appeared to agree, saying "We will not be prisoners to political correctness. Rather, we will speak the truth. Border security is national security and we will not be admitting jihadists as refugees."
    But what is getting much less attention in America -- and far fewer headlines -- is the hell that these moms and dads are fleeing from in Syria. Background checks are critical, and the fact is that the small number of Syrians coming to the U.S. have waited for at least 18 months and often two or three years for the multiple background checks to take place. What is also a fact is that these parents have almost no other choice than to flee if they want their children to survive a war that is dismembering their country and flattening their homes.
    Indeed, in reality, most of these refugees say they want to return to their country. Until that is possible, they simply want to get their children into school where they can learn. Speak with Syrian refugees and you quickly understand that most of them tried to stick it out in their country, despite the violent conflict around them, until they felt they had just run out of options. But what would you do if a bomb fell from the sky and knocked your child, playing just outside on the balcony, onto the earth below?
    For so many Syrians, such questions are not hypothetical -- this is exactly what happened to one father, who told this story in 2014 to Human Rights Watch.
    "My wife and I were inside the house and my daughter was playing on the balcony. I heard the sound of helicopter ... [and] I heard the barrel falling.... When the barrel bomb exploded the balcony was partially destroyed and my daughter fell from the third floor. When I went down I saw a lot of destruction and people screaming but I only focused on my daughter."
    Or as another father said, in July 2014, "I was at home with my 4-year-old daughter when the barrel bomb fell. ...The building was destroyed and they removed me from under the rubble. ...My 4-year-old daughter was also injured by shrapnel."
    One woman I met recently had just given birth when she fled her country. A college graduate who studied English at Aleppo University, she stayed until four months ago, when she fled with a toddler and a newborn in tow because a bomb destroyed her home and everything inside. Now she is in Turkey, waiting out the war with other relatives who are among the 2.3 million Syrians said to be living there.
    What does she hope for the future?
    "To come back to Syria," she says.
    Syrians I have met who now are working as aid workers say they faced a nearly impossible decision: Stay in Syria and end up in ISIS territory -- or even dead -- or leave the people they had been helping for years to survive the barrel bombs, shifting front lines, shrapnel, and gunfire that had become their horrible normal.
    Murvit, a 24-year-old aid worker, worked in Syria until a year ago. Her parents and her siblings had left the country already and urged her to go as well. She says her parents worried a great deal about their daughter working inside Syria while the front lines moved ever-closer. Their family home was destroyed soon after they fled.
    "They wanted me to come, but I wanted to stay and work," Murvit said. "They had forgotten all about their childhood," she says of the children she met as a sanitation specialist helping to stave off disease when families fled to abandoned homes that had no toilets or water services that functioned.
    She left only after ISIS reached the area where she was working.
    "It was too dangerous," she says. "My friend (another aid worker) and I were staying in an apartment and if Daesh (ISIS) came to our area, the first ones to be attacked were females who were alone."
    The wrenching decision to flee the bombs and the ISIS attacks was also one that confronted her colleague, Roula, a 27-year-old aid worker who is now working in Turkey.
    "People are facing death every day," she said.
    Roula has been following the U.S. debate closely via Facebook and says she wants people to know the reality on the ground.
    "We are not terrorists," she says. "The U.S. and Europe are now the options to stay alive. People need to understand it is not easy to go and leave your country and your language. It is not easy, especially when you have a family. They are not going to have a fancy life, they just want to stay alive."
    For Syrians making the difficult decision to leave the country they love and become refugees, war and terror are what they are fleeing. These moms and dads do not want to engage in violence; rather, they are risking their lives to escape from it. Those values -- that desire to do better by their children, to get them educated and to go back home -- are ones Americans understand well.