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The cruel hypocrisy of Trump’s sudden concern for Syrian children

This is the man who once said: “I can look in their faces and say ‘You can't come.’ I'll look them in the face.”    

A child carries an aid parcel as displaced Syrians from Tabqa and Raqa, who fled the fighting between the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamist State group jihadists, gather near the northern Syrian village of Jarniyah, on April 6, 2017.

“No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”

That was the critical line in Donald Trump’s statement explaining his decision to bomb a Syrian airbase in response to the April 4 chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria.

I couldn’t agree more with that sentence. In this view, at least, Trump is right: No child should ever endure such horror.

I began working with refugees in Austin, Texas, in 2007, and in a decade of being friends with, supporting, and interviewing refugees from dozens of countries around the world, I have heard countless stories of atrocities. None compare to the horror happening in Syria.

I wept when I saw the latest viral picture of the war in Syria, the one of Abdel Hameed Alyousef holding his twin toddlers. The twins look like the Syrian children who came over to my house for dinner a few weeks ago and played in my daughters’ playroom. No wonder their parents, who are newly resettled refugees in Austin, love them fiercely — all children are precious, but not all children face the horrifying dangers that threaten Syria’s babies.

Reportedly, pictures like that are one of the reasons Trump has suddenly reversed his Syrian policy. If it is genuine, I support Donald Trump’s turn toward the children of Syria.

But I am deeply skeptical. After all, this is the man who said about Syrian refugee children: “I can look in their faces and say ‘You can't come.’ I'll look them in the face.” This is a man who is fighting in court to keep Syrian refugees out of the United States.

If Donald Trump’s sudden reversal in rhetoric and policy is a true change of heart toward Syrian civilians, who are facing one of the greatest humanitarian crises in the history of the world, there will be one clear indicator: whether he reverses his travel ban. Until then, his words of concern for the children of Syria will remain just that: words.

“The war in Syria is a war against children”

No one should suffer nerve agent attacks like the recent one in Khan Sheikhoun, or in 2013 in Ghouta.

As Trump said of the most recent attack, “Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many — even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack.”

There have also been chlorine gas attacks in other Syrian cities like Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs. A report by Syrian American Medical Society stated there were 161 documented chemical attacks and 133 unverified ones against civilians in Syria between 2011 and 2016; more have occurred since that report came out. In all, more than 1,500 Syrian civilians have been killed and more than 15,000 have sustained injuries by chemical weapons attacks.

Chemical weapons are just some of the many ways Syrian president Bashar al-Assad kills children in his country. From my former refugee friends, I have heard of the devious ways the government attacks civilians with no regard for children: In one city, government forces positioned missile launchers in the soccer fields so they could better reach the civilian neighborhoods. In a rural part of the country, one woman had her weeks-old baby in the car with her when her husband ran over a landmine; the baby lived, but has a badly burned body.

Another family tells the story of how, after their home was bombed, they moved to a relative’s house, which was then bombed, and then they went to a third house of friends, which was also bombed. The children barely escaped with their lives each time. And these are just a handful of the atrocities — there are more than 5 million Syrians seeking asylum outside of their country and more than 6 million who are internally displaced.

I worked with a woman who used the pseudonym Nadia Al Moualem to write a first-person piece for Vox. In our interview, she made an offhand comment that haunts me: The war in Syria is a war against children. She and her husband named many ways children had been targeted by the Assad regime: The revolution started in March 2011 when people in Daraa protested the brutal torture of a group of school boys by the military police. A few months later, photos of the tortured body an apple-cheeked boy named Hamza Al-Khatib helped unite anti-government protests to full-on revolution.

And it’s not just Assad’s troops: ISIS has also been documented torturing children in Syria. There are too many instances to recount. Children are often killed in the indiscriminate bombing by government forces; children left alive are so miserable, some beg to die. The Twitter account of Bana Alabed, a 7-year-old Syrian girl living in Aleppo, held the riveted attention of the world while her government bombed her city.

And the stories of displaced Syrian children are just as grim, as witnessed by pictures of the body of Aylan Kurdi the 3-year-old boy who drowned near Turkey while his family desperately tried to find a place where they could be safe. Or Omran Daqneesh, the 5-year-old boy whose shell-shocked expression stunned the world after Syrian forces bombed his home in Aleppo.

If Trump cares so much about Syrian children, will he stop fighting for his refugee ban?

Since he announced his bid for the presidency, I have watched in disbelief and frustration at the rhetoric and policies Donald Trump has championed against refugees. I have wanted to say to Trump and other politicians: Don’t you know who refugees are? Don’t you realize they are the victims, not the perpetrators, of terrorism and war? Don’t you understand that any parent would make the same decisions to protect their children?

One Syrian-American told me: “After Trump’s decision to block Syrian refugees from resettling in the US, many of those refugees, who went through months and sometimes years of vetting after applying to come to the US, have been sent back to danger and death due to his policies. And now he wants to help the Syrian civilians? The same ones who are being denied refuge to the US? It is very hypocritical.”

Maybe Trump is that mercurial in his views on Syrian civilians, many of whom have had to become asylum-seekers and refugees; his foreign policy certainly seems impulsive. The debate about the efficacy of the Trump administration firing Tomahawk missiles into Syria after the chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun is ongoing.

I spoke with a Syrian-American man who works closely with the refugee community in Texas, and his view summarizes what many in that community are saying: The strike “is yet another example of a slap on the hand whenever Assad massacres Syrians.” While the rest of the world tries to decide what Trump means and what he’s going to do next, he says, “humanity goes to waste and Syrian lives are destroyed.”

Meanwhile, Trump lawyers filed court documents on Friday, the day after his statement in defense of Syrian children, that continued the fight to reinstate the travel ban that keeps Syrian refugees out of our country. Trump’s hypocrisy is just one more example of how the world has failed the children of Syria.

Allowing more Syrian refugees, who have already gone through the extensive vetting process, entry to the United States is one of many solutions to the suffering Syrians are facing; it impacts a very small percentage of the millions of displaced Syrians. But it would indicate a true policy shift by the Trump administration and show that the children of Syria are more than a pawn in Trump’s confusing, capricious foreign policy.

Jessica Goudeau has a PhD in literature from the University of Texas. She has worked with refugees for almost a decade and is currently writing a book about refugees in the throes of resettlement. She writes at and tweets as @jessica_goudeau.

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