The audience sat in silence with their eyes fixed on the screen. They could not look away no matter how much they wanted to. For an hour and 15 minutes, the audience was no longer in Casella Theater.
They were in Jordan’s Za’atari Syrian refugee camp.
The Castleton Soundings program held a viewing of the documentary “Salam Neighbors” with an open panel discussion on Oct. 22. The panel consisted of one of the film’s directors, Zach Ingrasci, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, and professor Emily Gleason.
The discussion and the film emphasized that the Syrian people – are people. They are not terrorists trying to destroy the world or a parasite trying to leech off of others kindness.
“Our neighbors immediately came out and helped us set up our tent. I never felt in danger throughout the entire process and I think that speaks to the vast majority of Syrian refugees,” said Ingrasci about his experience in Za’atari. “They are just like you or I and have many of the same goals as us. I think I came away with a much greater appreciation for making this world a much better place for welcoming refugees.”
Though the crew and Ingrasci were welcomed, they still experienced challenges, like finding people who could tell their story without putting themselves or their families in harm for doing so.
But one event truly shocked Ingrasci.
He and the crew befriended a young boy named Raouf, who loved to learn, but wasn’t in school. Ingrasci and the others tried to help Raouf go back to school during the beginning of the semester, but the young boy couldn’t do it.
“Seeing Raouf attempt to go back to school and literally hit the threshold of the door, not being able to cross it and breaking down really affected me,” said Ingrasci.
They learned later that Raouf lived through his school being bombed back in Syria. Raouf couldn’t get past the mental trauma of what had happened. Happily for the director, Raouf did finally return to school and is doing well.
But the panel members agreed there is still much more that United States could be doing to help with the Syrian crisis aside from its military involvement.
“We are the world’s biggest economy and a country built on immigrants. I just don’t understand why the U.S. isn’t taking more Syrian refugees,” said Ford, the former ambassador.
He suggested that by reducing the U.S. Air Force F16 operations by 10 percent, Homeland Security and the FBI could hire more screeners for the refugees. It would speed up the process and potentially save more lives.
“On one hand, we have the military help fighting the Islamic extremists. On the other hand, we have the refugee policy, but it isn’t doing everything it can do to undermine recruitment of those extremist groups,” Ford said.
He added that the two hands should be complimentary and not contradictory. Ford also gave praise to Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras and Rutland Welcomes for helping take in refugees.
“It’s the right thing to do from a humanitarian and compassionate perspective where we really have a moral obligation to help those who are fleeing for their lives and looking to rebuild those lives,” Louras said.
He later mentioned that taking in the refugees is good from a self-serving perspective. Rutland’s population peaked in 1970 at 19,000 people, but since then its population has declined by 15 to 20 percent. By aiding the Syrian people, Rutland will see a boost in jobs and housing stock.
“We recognize that there isn’t a growing, vibrant and successful community in the country that’s not embracing new Americans,” said Louras. “The level of cultural diversity that new Americans provide will both allow us to attract and retain young professionals, singles and their families. Because data supports the fact that the up and coming generation wants to live in a community with a high level of diversity.”
Programs have been setup to help the refugees break down the language barrier so they will be able to meld into our community with ease. Though there are many supporters of the refugees there are still negative views on the Syrian people that need to be changed, panelists said.
Gleason, an education professor at Castleton, is working with graduate students studying the impact of the Syrian relocation effort.
“Part of mine and our responsibility right now is to learn about the Middle East and inform ourselves about the conflict. There have been so many misperceptions and misunderstandings about Muslim populations, Arabic populations and terrorism,” she said.
“I think we need to educate ourselves about the context and knowing that terrorism can be mitigated by welcoming people and creating safe spaces for people to live, rather than alienating people who are fleeing from the very same things that Americans are afraid of.”