International Unitarian Universalism

Refugee Crisis - Where Is the World?

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This guest post is from the Unitarian Universalist Peace Ministry Network (UUPMN). It was written by Ann Lundberg, a member of UUPMN and of The Unitarian Church in Westport, CT.

Whether the global refugee crisis is the worst humanitarian crisis of our time-- or just the most neglected crisis--is up for dispute. We know the numbers: 65.3 million displaced people around the world, according to the UN High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR). The largest refugee population comes from Syria. No matter how astronomical, numbers still are abstractions. It’s the little details that move us.

I visited a journalist friend in Turkey who described a refugee camp of 30,000 people with no electricity, 50 toilets, 4 doctors and few supplies. They were dividing tongue depressors in half. “Worst,” he said, “No one in charge! Where was the United Nations? Where is the World?”

I wanted to know where are the Unitarian Universalists. What can we do? UUs across the US are helping to welcome refugees, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) is working in many European sites, and the UU Peace Ministry Network (UUPMN) is exhorting congregations to support the World Food Program. But so much more is needed!

Where to begin? One might first consider the issue of scale.

Group I. The most desperate are those in the Middle East. Although the numbers are slippery, there are between 11–15 million Syrians violently driven from their homes. UNHCR counts about 6.6 million displaced inside Syria, called Internally Displaces Persons, or IDP’s, and 4.9 million are refugees in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, but those are only the “registered” refugees. Worse yet, the numbers of IDP’s in conflict zones are impossible to quantify. What is certain is that these in the Middle East have the least resources – the elderly, disabled and widows with young children. You could help the hardest cases with donations to the large UN agencies and private aid groups. Some organizations even offer local volunteer opportunities, like the NYC office for Doctors Without Borders.

Refugees in Lesvos, Greece with UUSC volunteer Latifa Woodhouse

Refugees in Lesvos, Greece, with UUSC volunteer Latifa Woodhouse, member of UU Congregation of Shelter Rock, NY

Group II. European refugees have even more complicated challenges. In addition to losing their families, being bombed or tortured in their own country, they have taken a perilous journey across the Mediterranean, paying smugglers several thousand dollars for that journey. Upon arrival, they are blocked from continuing to their desired destination. The European refugees are also multi-nationals, even unaccompanied children. The ones you see on television, recharging their cell phones, are younger, better educated. To help them, private groups like the UUSC are partnering with non-governmental organizations in the European Union. While some may be inexperienced-- with all the different languages and unwanted cultural exchange-- they offer unique opportunities for volunteers.

Group III. The third group you could help is really small. For FY 2016, which ended in October, the US reached its goal of 10,000 Syrian refugees who have been cleared and admitted into the US. While governors in only 15 states have welcomed Syrian refugees, the courts issued a ruling on October 3, 2016 that a state cannot refuse to accept a refugee. However, they can refuse to cooperate. Church groups and civic organizations across the country are working to resettle refugees. In my town, a co-sponsorship agency, Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS), helped us set up 15 committees to prepare for a family. Another Connecticut group is IICONN, and Church World Services works in New York and elsewhere. They also advocate for and against bills pending in Congress and for efficient, fair vetting. So if your talents are spokesmanship and campaigning, Church World Service is an effective voice. The resettlement groups offer personal involvement-- but they affect a small number of refugees.

The real refugee crisis is in the Middle East, not Europe or the US. Europe, with a population of 500 million, is up in arms at the prospect of 1.5 million refugees; by contrast, 1 million Syrian refugees have flooded tiny Lebanon or about one-fourth of its own population of 4.5 million. For this reason the UU Peace Ministry Network, which seeks to energize peacemaking, also acts to alleviate the suffering of war victims. Here is their perspective on the Middle East refugee crisis.

The cause of the exodus to Europe is the deteriorating condition of the refugee camps in the Middle East. By helping the experienced international groups, run by UN and private agencies that have been aiding Syrians since 2011, one can get to the base of that problem. Some examples would include UNICEF (the UN Children’s Fund); UNHCR, that provides the camp facilities; and The World Food Program (WFP) that provisions them; or many private groups like Doctors Without Borders, providing medical help.

The UU Peace Ministry Network has chosen to support the WFP. That is the largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger globally. It is a UN program, not supported as a line-item in the UN budget, but by voluntary donations. The national branch, the World Food Program USA, is a tax-deductible organization, and the UU Peace Ministry Network has congregations from Maine to California supporting them.

For those in refugee camps: The creative method of WFP provides dignity –not soup lines inside the camps—but food vouchers to allow the Syrians to choose the food for their families. It also provides a living for the local grocers – in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey—thereby decreasing tension in the host countries. In the face of an intractable war, it is bringing a culture of peace.

Inside Syria: One nutrition program in 2015 served 15,000 pregnant women and nursing mothers with food vouchers for fresh produce, dairy and fresh meat products. Another program in both Lebanon and Syria gave children daily nutrients at school. Not only did they feed those children, but it also encouraged parents to send them to school regularly.

Inside conflict zones in Syria WFP makes regular deliveries of staples: food items including rice, bulgur wheat, canned food, sugar, cooking oil, reaching more than 4 million people inside Syria. For example WFP has carried out 37 airdrops over the besieged eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor (near Palmyra) since April 10, feeding around 100,000 people.

The greatest problem isn’t choosing whether to engage with refugees in Europe, the Middle East, or in the US. The greatest problem is getting compassionate and otherwise generous-spirited people to take notice at all–15 million violently uprooted from their homes! We have not seen numbers like that since WWII. Pope Francis decried the “globalization of indifference” to suffering in Syria two years ago. Ban Ki-moon called it crimes against humanity. Yet “in the face of blatant inhumanity, the world has responded with disturbing paralysis.” It is always the same question: “Where is the world?”

Part is caused by resistance to help victims of ongoing conflict. Compassion fatigue doesn’t set in for a natural disaster. The rubble is cleared, the new city built. But no clean slate appears in wartime. The media also has a tendency to equate atrocities on both sides: false equivalency. Worse is the inattention to stories outside the country or outside the election. My journalist friend fought losing battles with his producers—“Cut back on the refugee stories.” He recalls that Vietnam occurred in our living rooms on the 6 PM news. But few Americans are fighting in this war and we don’t get the story. Except in one case.

“Sixty Minutes” program ran a couple of years ago-- about how the World Food Program had run out of money—and that resulted in raising $88M in three days. One more media incentive was the Ken Burns PBS documentary, Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War. It tells how a Unitarian minister and his wife helped save hundreds of Jews in 1939-40.

The stunning parallels in that film of the goose-stepping soldiers, marching relentlessly through the streets of Prague, menacing civilians, evoke the ISIS videos; the bombed out cities, with rubble as far as the eye can see--it could easily be Aleppo, Homs, Damascus, barrel-bombed into rubble. Parents saying a last goodbye to children who are being flown off to safety. Everything points to the war today in the Middle East and possibly will lead to action for its victims.

But we have to DO something. How to overcome the disturbing paralysis? We have so many tools at hand to address other injustices –income inequality, Black Lives Matter, global warming, gun safety. But how do we stop a war or even get them to sign a peace treaty? The immensity of it.

The examples from the Ken Burns documentary give us many clues. Waitstill and Martha Sharp had tiny children but went off to Hungary and put together (with the local Czech Unitarian minister, Quakers and even the Salvation Army) a web of actions that saved hundreds of lives. It didn’t end the war or save 6 million Jews, but it made a difference. Rev. Everett Baker of the UUA also made a difference: he called 17 different ministers before he got one couple to go. He kept on phoning.

We cannot do everything, but we can do something. It is urgent, don’t neglect it. We have to answer, “Where is the world?”