Thursday, December 03, 2015

The Syrian Refugee Debate Takes to Social Media: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

In the era of Facebook, controversial topics play out in various ways on the social networking site and it's often not pretty. Such has been the case with the ongoing debate over whether the United States should accept Syrian refugees in the wake of the tragic terrorism acts in Paris.

While Syrian refugees have been seeking safe harbor in several countries over the past few years, the debate here in America has escalated in recent weeks and turned into divisive political arguments. A majority of U.S. governors have publicly voiced their opposition to providing asylum to the Syrian migrants even though immigration remains a federal issue. The debate has also become a litmus test for the presidential candidates and their views on domestic security.


Facebook, with its free accounts and ability to weigh in on anything in a public forum, has provided bully pulpits to anyone with an internet connection at home, at the office or on their smartphone. Now, as soon as someone offers their opinion in the form of a Facebook post as to whether the U.S. should welcome Syrian refugees, that post quickly becomes an explosive back-and-forth among commentators from every demographic and political affiliation.

After Michigan's governor, Rick Snyder, reversed his earlier position in support of Michigan welcoming Syrian refugees, debates on the social network started by local residents turned into tempestuous back-and-forth arguments with each side posting links to articles in support of their opinion on the matter. Analogies to the U.S. closing its doors to Jewish refugees in the 1930's were quickly rebuffed by those arguing that allowing the Syrian migrants into our country would lead to domestic terrorism. Others cited statistics showing the majority of terrorist attacks were caused by those affiliated with Islam. These posts garnered hundreds of comments with both sides vehemently concerned about the issues they prioritize, whether the security of our country and the refugee screening process or the ethical considerations of turning away hopeless women and young children in need of shelter.

The Jewish community, with its strong values, remains divided on these issues as evidenced by the outpouring of strongly held viewpoints on Facebook. Some descendents of those who were turned back to Europe in the 1930s took the position that the U.S. must use its moral compass and not transgress as it did before the Holocaust. Others called such a comparison preposterous as the Jewish immigrants from Europe eighty years ago posed no threat to American citizens. On such a contentious issue, strong disagreements are bound to occur online. Several such Facebook debates over the Syrian refugee topic led to Facebook users blocking each other, even those who are friends in real life.

In many instances, the Facebook discussion space has proven to be detrimental to open and honest dialogue with regard to the Syrian refugee crisis, but surely there are some positive outcomes from Facebook in this matter.


The Syrian refugees determined to flee their war-torn and poverty-stricken homes are turning to Facebook to make their treacherous journey safer. Before Facebook became such a ubiquitous mobile app, migrants relied solely on traffickers to help them flee to safety. This was often a dangerous and sometimes fatal proposition. With easy access to smartphones, however, the refugees are able to get to the West safely.

The Syrians escaping their home country have been using Facebook groups to post information for future refugees about safe routes and reliable rest areas for secure refuge. Facebook's Check-In feature allows users to post precise whereabouts during their journey using GPS and then provide updates to fellow refugees on other boats. Where are the poor migrants getting access to smartphones? The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has already provided over 30,000 cellphone SIM cards and close to 100,000 solar charging lanterns to Syrians to maintain their phone's power.

The smartphones connected to mobile apps like Facebook have proven a necessary component in the journey for these refugees. While they've come to depend on the social network to keep their voyage more secure, it is still a perilous endeavor that doesn't end when they arrive in Europe or North America. At least, Facebook has helped to provide comfort and direction to the Syrian refugees.


Jason Buzi - Refugee Nation
Another way Facebook is being used to help in the Syrian refugee crisis is through a project of entrepreneur and real estate mogul Jason Buzi.  When he heard about the crisis, Buzi decided to do something productive. Using his connections on Facebook and other social media, he launched Refugee Nation ( and sought to create a new country in which these refugees can live.

Forming a brand-new nation purely for refugees sounds far fetched, but Buzi has already found some measure of success in reaching out to influential billionaires, politicians and UN Ambassadors. His experience as a disrupter in Silicon Valley positions him in the right sphere of influence to actually find traction for his idea.

James Hathaway, director of the refugee and asylum program at the University of Michigan Law School, is a supporter of Refugee Nation and loves that Buzi has a strong sense of moral outrage about a problem that could be fixed but no one is doing much about.

Buzi plans to buy or lease a large amount of land to create a state for the refugees and he's using Facebook to draw support. He's already invested over tens of thousands of his own dollars into this idea and has raised several thousand more on crowdfunding sites. Through the Refugee Nation Facebook page's almost 20,000 followers, Buzi is quickly growing the buzz for his idea and getting Hollywood megastars, world leaders and the United Nations to pay attention. There might also be some collaboration between Refugee Nation and Naguib Sawiris, the Egyptian billionaire, who is interested in buying an island for refugees.

Facebook Connects Volunteers to Refugees

Another way Facebook is playing a positive role in the Syrian refugee crisis is through Migration Aid, a closed Hungarian Facebook group. According to, the group has already helped thousands of Middle Eastern refugees navigate their way through chaos during the peak of Europe’s Syrian refugee crisis. The aim of Migration Aid is to connect volunteers with the refugees to provide relief.

Sandor Ujhelyi, who owns a restaurant, created the Migration Aid group on Facebook in late June 2015. It has over nine thousand members and has grown rapidly. Ujhelyi used Facebook as a way to announce that anyone who would like to help in the Syrian refugee crisis should visit his restaurant for a meeting. Twenty people showed at the  first meeting with sixty at the net meeting, and then eventually refugees started to arrive by the thousands and the number of volunteers grew with it, by as many as a hundred a day. Facebook essentially hosts what has become a virtual planning board for Migration Aid as it coordinates volunteers to deal with legal matters, storage, safety and logistics through millions of posts, comments and chat messages on the social networking platform.

While Facebook has proven to be a forum for those with pent up emotions to argue their opinions about the humanitarian crisis and how the U.S. should respond to the dire need of the refugees seeking safety, it has also demonstrated its usefulness in providing assistance to the refugees and reducing the impact of the crisis. Middle- and upper-class Americans, the fortunate descendants of immigrants themselves, will continue to squabble with each other on Facebook over the correct policy actions the U.S. should take with regard to the Syrian refugees making the social network a hotbed for bickering and cantankerous debate. The positive side of the coin is that the same social network is also bringing people together to try to deal with the crisis in the most humane way possible. Whether it's helping the migrants navigate the treacherous journey to safety, raising funds for a secure nation to harbor the refugees, or linking up volunteers with those in need, Facebook is being exploited for good too.

Cross-posted to the Detroit Jewish News

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Very good post. I learned few new things about Facebook. I had no idea it can be used to navigate safe escape for refugees. And yes, I believe they need any help possible. The world should unite to provide shelter and comfort to those running away from a war.