FXB and MEI Host “Building Bridges” Seminar: An Interdisciplinary Response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Syrian refugee settlement in Lebanon

By Lara Jirmanus

The Syrian refugee crisis has been described as the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.  The conflict, which began as a popular uprising in 2011, has become a battleground for regional and global powers, with over 400,000 killed and no end in sight. According to a December 2016 UN report, more than half of the Syrian population has been displaced, including at least 6.3 million internally, 4.8 million in neighboring countries, and 1.2 million in Europe.  Among the hardest hit are the “double refugees,” such as the 560,000 Palestinian refugees settled in Syria who have been forced to relocate multiple times inside (and now outside of) Syria and are overwhelmingly dependent on the UN for survival. As Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq absorb the vast majority of displaced Syrians, new strategies are essential to support institutions in host communities to cope with the massive influx of refugees and to facilitate co-existence between refugee and host populations.  Furthermore as 90% of Syrian refugees in the region settle not in camps, but in already underserved (mostly urban) areas, the humanitarian response must adapt to a new context, integrating refugees into host country health systems as António Guterres and Paul Spiegel of the UNHCR suggest rather than establishing parallel services as in refugee camps.

The Harvard FXB Center has partnered with the Middle East Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School to develop a seminar that touches upon the crisis from a variety of angles. Since September 2016, a core group of 40 scholars, practitioners, and thought leaders from across the Harvard and Boston communities have joined to discuss challenges and innovative solutions to promote Syrian refugee well-being.

Speakers in the fall series portrayed the failings of the international community to protect the human rights of the Syrian population in conflict and as refugees. Sessions described:

  • the documentation of attacks on medical facilities and personnel in Syria, and also offeredfirst-person testimony on delivering medical care and training Syrian physicians in conflict-ridden parts of the country;
  • the difficulties Syrian refugees face while registering births and marriages in Jordan, which places their children at risk of statelessness, and limits their access to healthcare and education;
  • community-based participatory research with the Lebanese, Dom (Middle Eastern Roma) and Syrian refugee residents of an urban slum in Beirut, as an approach to integrating healthcare delivery and research on Syrian refugee and host populations;
  • the prevalence of chronic diseases and mental health issues for Syrian refugees in Jordan, with refugees identifying cost as the primary barrier to healthcare;
  • the challenges of child protection for Syrian refugees in Greece, as well as the impact of trauma and toxic stress on child development among Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Greece;
  • the complexity of research and care delivery in complex humanitarian crises, given the high prevalence chronic diseases and long-term, urban displacement of Syrian refugees;
  • a Jordanian Ministry of Labor initiative, which provided 80,000 Syrians in Jordan with legal work opportunities, protecting them from unsafe working conditions, wage theft, and arrest for working illegally.

Discussions further explored the challenges of responding to the prolonged displacement of populations in urban settings in contrast to traditional relief efforts, with their focus on the immediate needs of refugees in camps.

In the spring semester, the seminar will continue its biweekly sessions, alternating between the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Kennedy School. The seminar will explore the crisis through the lenses of anthropology, education, mental health, and international and U.S. immigration law.

Participants have emphasized the utility of the seminar and stated that the “diversity of disciplines are phenomenal!” One participant commented, “I want to stress how thankful I am to have had this experience, how much I’ve learned and how much I believe that this is one of the most meaningful and important things I’ve been part of this year…”

The seminar is fully enrolled, but there are a few spaces available in individual sessions through RSVP.  The full schedule can be found on the FXB website or the seminar’s webpage (to reach the seminar’s webpage, click on the link, choose Study Groups from the left-hand menu, and scroll down to the Building Bridges link).

RSVP links, along with required readings, become available as individual sessions approach. Past topics along with suggested readings are available on the seminar webpage; video recordings will also soon be posted.

Lara Jirmanus, MD, MPH, a fellow at the FXB Center and family physician, created and leads this interdisciplinary seminar on the Syrian refugee crisis. She has worked at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, caring for Syrian refugees in mobile and urban clinics, and conducting a study with an NGO health center in an underserved Beirut neighborhood.

2016 photograph of Syrian refugees in informal camp in Lebanon by Lara Jirmanus

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