Background

  • On the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, Syria is bordered by Turkey on the north, Israel and Lebanon on the west, Iraq on the east, and Jordan on the south.

  • Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years, from the early 1500s to the early 1900s. A period of French colonial rule (1918-1946) ended with Syrian independence. The next 20 years saw multiple coups and a brief unity with Egypt as the United Arab Republic. In 1963, the Ba’ath party took over the government, installing a secular and socialist Arab regime.

  • In 2000, after 30 years of rule, Hafez al-Assad passed away and was succeeded by his son, Bashar al-Assad, who remains in power today. Under Bashar al-Assad, authoritarian rule under one party and one ruler continued. Assad favored the Alawite sect politically and economically and placed family members in positions of power.

  • Government support for education and health care continued, with health care and higher education provided at little or no cost.

  • Alongside these free government-funded services, private universities and clinics catering to the new elite were founded. Political repression and governmental corruption and mismanagement did not end, however, and most Syrians continued to feel oppressed by the Assad regime and Ba’ath party political control. 

  • The 2011 uprising began as peaceful protests began, perhaps inspired by the success of Arab Spring movements in Egypt and Tunisia. The protestors called for democratic reforms, the lifting of Emergency Law in place since 1963, the release of political prisoners, multiparty elections, and, on the part of some Syrians, the end of the regime.

  • The Syrian government responded to the demonstrations as it had in the past, with widespread arrests, beatings by plainclothes government forces, brutal interrogations and torture, and the use of live ammunition and snipers to terrify and kill street protestors.

  • The people, however, remained on the streets and began organizing in different ways against the regime. Since the start of the crisis, the Syrian government has referred to protesters and their family members and sympathizers as terrorists.

  • Islamist extremists, including factions based in Iraq, took advantage of the instability and joined in, fighting both the regime and the Free Syrian Army at different times. One of the foreign factions, the militant Sunni group Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), established a base in eastern Syria. From there it launched an attack and takeover of western Iraq in 2014. 

  • Involvement by outside parties has complicated the Syrian situation. The Syrian government has received economic and military support from Iran, Russia, and Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shi’a Muslim political/military group. Various groups of opposition fighters have received assistance from regional Arab governments, and extremist Islamists have been aided by states and wealthy patrons in the region. The moderate opposition has received some assistance from Europe and the United States.

  • Civilians and nonviolent activists have paid a heavy toll in the conflict. Since 2011, more than 400,000 people have been killed, and millions driven from their homes. Men, women, and children have suffered extreme trauma or witnessed it. It is estimated that half of Syria’s population is no longer living in their homes.

Culture and Religion

  • Syria is a culturally diverse country with a pre-conflict population of 22 million people. Its population is relatively well educated, and quite young.

  • Arabs, including Muslims and Christians, make up nearly 90% of Syria’s population. Kurds, the second largest ethnic group, make up about 10% of the population. There are other, much smaller ethnic groups, such as the Armenians and the Turkomans. In Syria, ethnic identity and native tongue are closely tied. 

  • All Syrians speak colloquial Arabic, and the great majority can also read and write in Modern Standard Arabic. The Syrian dialect is closest to Lebanese/Palestinian/Jordanian dialects (known as Levantine or Shami Arabic), sharing with them a very similar grammar and vocabulary.

  • While rural communities are the country’s breadbasket, the Syrian regime in the last 25 years has directed its resources toward urban areas and has not invested in rural development. Government policy, as well as high levels of corruption and cronyism, has alienated rural communities and increased the divide between city and rural dwellers.

  • Syrians highly value the arts, and the work of its many musicians, writers, artists, and actors has been both promoted and controlled by the government.

  • Most Syrians have attended at least primary school and have basic literacy skills in Arabic. According to the World Bank, 72% of Syrians of secondary school age were enrolled in school before the uprising. Syrians are known in the Arab world as skilled in construction and other types of manual labor and in the hospitality and service sectors. 

  • The education of children is seen as important, but children who do not do well in school may drop out to start work or get married.

  • In pre-conflict Syria, there were many small business owners as well as a professional class made up of doctors, bureaucrats, teachers, university professors, and social workers, among others. 

  • Although the war has fueled sectarian tensions, pre-conflict Syrians interacted with members of all religious and ethnic groups at work, at school, and in their neighborhoods. 

  • In general, Syrian society is patriarchal, and everyone is under the protection and authority of the oldest man. Women are believed to be in need of protection, particularly from the attention of unrelated men. Although older men are the family decision makers, women and younger men engage in a great deal of negotiation and non-confrontational actions to achieve their own goals. 

  • Families are generally large and extended in Syria. They include not only parents and children but also grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Among family members, there are close bonds of love and support as well as responsibility and supervision. Family members feel a duty to take care of each other and make sure no one does anything that will negatively affect other family members.

  • Syrians are very affectionate with children—even the children of strangers—and will hold them on their laps, tousle their heads, and kiss the cheeks of babies and children.

  • Syrian attitudes toward mental health treatment have shifted since 2011. Before the crisis, most Syrians viewed mental illness as a stigma that brought shame on the family, and Syrians with mental health needs were usually reluctant to seek professional help or discuss their concerns with family or friends. Today, with large numbers of men, women, and children in obvious psychological distress and need of care, Syrians are more open to seeking mental health treatment. 

  • The refugee population includes men, women, and children who have suffered torture and violence, including sexual violence. Mental health care providers working in Jordan report high rates of children, some age five or younger, who have experienced torture or trauma—higher levels than previously seen in Middle East refugee populations. Almost every Syrian refugee will have lost family or friends in the war.

Adjusting to Life in America

  • Syrian women generally dress much more conservatively than Western women, and many Muslim women use a headscarf to cover their hair. Syrians will be taken aback by the casual—and by Syrian standards, revealing-clothing styles of Western women, particularly  in summer.

  • Most educated Syrians will have at least a limited ability to speak English, although it might turn out that they read much more than they can say or understand.

  • The open and friendly relations between men and women in resettlement countries will be a source of confusion and discomfort for Syrians. Newcomers will need to understand that while relations between men and women may appear easy and relaxed, there are customs and in some countries laws governing acceptable behavior and speech, particularly in the workplace.

  • Arab refugees might be puzzled at our American customs involving the necessity of invitations and giving notice before we visit. An Syrian family might issue a general invitation, not realizing that they must pin down a specific time and place, then sit at home socially isolated and lonely, wondering why Americans are so unsociable.

  • Hospitality is cherished tradition, to the point that Syrians might insist on paying, even when it is spending more than they can afford.

  • With a long history of migrating to other countries in search of better lives, Syrians are known for their hard work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit. Many Syrians will be eager to work as soon as possible. Those with backgrounds in white-collar occupations may be reluctant to accept manual labor jobs, however.