Rehm Talk: Resettling Syrian Refugees in America: Regional Stability & Saving Lives

By Kelsey Littlefield

The Center for Interdisciplinary Studies at the College of the Holy Cross selected Alexander Kochenburger ’17, an international studies major, as the Washington Semester Away Program, Maurizio Vannicelli Award recipient. Kochenburger presented a lecture titled “Resettling Syrian Refugees in America: Regional Stability & Saving Lives” on Nov. 9 at 4 p.m. in Rehm Library.

During his semester in Washington D.C., Kochenburger interned for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs within the U.S. Department of State, which handles U.S. foreign policy and U.S. diplomatic relations with 18 countries and territories, including Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, and regional policy issues which include Iraq, Middle East peace, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and political and economic reform. Also within the department, Kochenburger worked in the Office of Press and Public Diplomacy, which conducts communications with international audiences, cultural programming, academic grants, educational exchanges, international visitor programs, and U.S. government efforts to confront ideological support for terrorism.

Kochenburger’s main duties included interacting with individuals from the Middle East, such as judges from Palestine, journalists from Lebanon, and dairy farmers from Gaza, who came to the United States, scheduling meetings with them and escorting them around the State Department building to meet with department officials. Kochenburger was also a part of the Syrian Cessation of Hostility Task Force in February 2016, after the 2016 ceasefire was implemented by the United States and Russia. While on the task force, he spent 12-hour shifts on Saturdays and Sundays recording any cited violations of the ceasefire agreement, which were called into the State Department from the ground in Syria or from the United Nations.

In addition to participating in an intensive Arabic language program in Morocco last summer through the competitive Critical Language Scholarship, Kochenburger said his experiences working in the State Department sharpened his Arabic, which he has been studying since his senior year of high school. Learning Arabic in high school, he says, sparked his interest in studying the Middle East while in college.

“When I arrived at Holy Cross, I decided that I wanted to study the Middle East in addition to Arabic,” Kochenburger said. “I applied for an internship at the State Department to incorporate both my interest in international relations and in the Middle East. Since I think I want to work for the U.S. government after graduation, the State Department was a perfect opportunity for me.”

During his presentation, Kochenburger discussed his thesis, which centered around the United States’ work to resettle Syrian refugees in the country, with a specific focus on how resettling these refugees in the United States is important not only for humanitarian reasons, but for the stability of Jordan and Lebanon.

“We are witnessing the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of our generation. One in 120 people are displaced in Syria. The stakes are also much worse: there are five million people who have fled their homes out of 27 million, and 11 million Syrians have been displaced while 500,000 have been killed,” explained Kochenburger.

Kochenburger went on to discuss the security, economic, and “lost generation” concerns surrounding the resettlement of Syrian refugees. “Before the Paris attacks, 75 percent of Americans were on board for the resettlement of refugees. However, after the attacks, that number went down to 44 percent in a couple of weeks.” He noted the difference between resettlement and asylum, where countries such as France, Germany, and Lebanon, will offer asylum to incoming refugees, and must consider individual requests under national law. Furthermore, after the strenuous process involving the United Nations criteria for possible asylum, the United States only approves one percent of the applicants based on various factors including possible vulnerability—women and children—and single parent households.

The cost of regional stability was another facet of Kochenburger’s lecture as he discussed the important alliance of the United States with Jordan and the country’s similarities to Lebanon, as well as the lack of education and sexual violence that is sustained throughout potential resettlement. “The lack of education and exposure to heavy violence contributes to an extremist global view,” he said in relation to the lost generation of Syrians.

Kochenburger is currently working on expanding the Arabic programs at Holy Cross, and has applied for a Fulbright scholarship to study in Morocco, where he also studied abroad for six months during his junior year.

The Vannicelli Prize is awarded each semester in honor of the late Holy Cross political science professor and Washington Semester director, Maurizio Vannicelli, for the best research paper produced in the Washington Semester program. The recipient of the award is given the opportunity to present a public lecture at the College on his or her thesis. In addition, the recipient receives a bound copy of the thesis and is presented with the book award during commencement exercises.

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