NY Times columnist visits CWU

McKenzie Lakey, Editor-in-Chief

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Syrian refugees sit huddled together on the floor of an abandoned gym, the few belongings that remain from their previous life rest by their sides after travelling thousands of miles.

They have escaped the brutal slaughter that continues to take place in their home country, but as they row up to the shores of foreign lands, they find themselves without a home, a job or a place to go.

This is just one of the scenes that Roger Cohen described from his personal experience as a foreign editor for The New York Times during the ongoing refugee crisis in the Middle East and throughout Europe. It was also the highlight of his discussion on Syria and the destabilization of Europe on Wednesday, Nov. 2 at CWU.

Cohen’s speech was one of the first in CWU’s year-long series that will focus on the topic of migration and follows last year’s series on “Mass Incarceration: Black and Brown Lives Matter.”

Although Cohen battled his bronchitis throughout the speech, he didn’t let it slow him down as he jumped headfirst into the refugee crisis and the massacre that incited it.


The start of a revolution

 In 2010, Cohen was present for a revolution that sparked worldwide interest: The Arab Spring.

During that time he bounced from Tunisia to Cairo to Benghazi and witnessed the protests firsthand as they evolved.

“It was an incredible moment,” Cohen said. “It was one of those moments where you feel the world is changing in front of your eyes, and where the human spirit has risen up to claim the freedom that is dear to most people’s hearts.”

What Cohen didn’t foresee was the consequences that the Arab Spring protests would have in Syria just a year later.

The protests of the Arab Spring carried throughout the Middle East and sparked similar, peaceful acts in Syria. However, the government was unforgiving.

As a crackdown on the protests that developed in 2011, Cohen said that Syrian President Bashir al-Assad began to attack the peaceful protestors, specifically targeting women and children, as a way to extinguish the hopes of the people.

The murderous actions of Assad against his own citizens, and the Obama administration’s inaction when it became known that Assad was using chemical weapons, is where Cohen attributes the start of the Syrian refugee crisis.

“You don’t become a refugee because you have a choice, you become a refugee because you have no choice,” Cohen said, his face becoming flushed as his voice grew louder. “You don’t put your child on a rubber dingy, on the high seas because you have a choice. You put your child in a rubber dingy on the high seas because you know if you stay where you are, that child, more than likely, is going to die.”


Entry: Accepted

Cohen often cited the mass exodus throughout his speech as a situation caused by “states of extreme desperation,” and compared the crisis to that of one during World War II, when Jews were in search of refuge but found themselves unable to find any place to turn to.

However, in a turn of good faith, Cohen said that Germany had redeemed itself for its past mistakes.

According to the Pew Research Center, Germany took in around 1 million refugees in 2015 compared to the 12,587 Syrian refugees the U.S. took in this past fiscal year.

Cohen believes that crises such as these are often overlooked by Americans and those in the Western part of the world due to society’s affinity for being caught up in the next big thing.

According to Cohen, Americans in particular are constantly consumed with the next minute’s tweet, the next day’s headline, and leave situations such as Syria “trumped.”

“I cannot gaze at the world today and not feel troubled,” Cohen said. “Basic human rights. They are not asking for anything more than that.”


Hope on the line

After years of reporting from the frontlines of Beirut in the 1980s and Bosnia in the 1990s, Cohen seems to find hope in just about every situation.

At a site where Syrian refugees had just stepped out of their makeshift rafts and dingies, he was on the scene.

He’d reported on the conditions and the slaughter behind their forced move. He had seen the kid who walked thousands of miles to Afghanistan for a shred of safety. Yet through all of that, he found a glimmer of hope in their stories and highlighted it.

“There was a couple from Damascus, he was a dentist, and he told me that he and his wife, who was asleep on his shoulder, had just gotten married. He turned to me and he smiled and he said ‘Ya know, this is our honeymoon.’”

Cohen went on to say that even in the most desperate of situations people can retain their humor, their courage and ultimately, they can retain their hope.

“Beginning again is hard,” Cohen said. “[But] remember that the refugee, in the end, is all of us. Our humanity is shared.”


Cohen is set to speak again on the American election in McIntyre’s Concert Hall at 6 p.m. on Thursday afternoon. Reception begins at 5 p.m. in the Music Foyer.

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NY Times columnist visits CWU