Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Send Us More Syrian Refugees Yearning to Breathe Free

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Send Us More Syrian Refugees Yearning to Breathe Free

Article excerpt

When 4 million Syrian refugees, running for their lives, began pouring into Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey in 2011 they overwhelmed their host countries. International relief agencies tried to help support the influx of refugees, but the pressure to house, provide adequate medical aid, sanitation, water and electricity, much less to employ or educate the refugees, crushed their hosts (see p. 21).

The U.S. administration has spent $4.1 billion on humanitarian aid since the Syrian civil war began, trying to help Syria's neighbors cope with their burden-and to keep refugees in the region. As long as the Syrians were out of sight-folded into camps or dilapidated apartments, often alongside their Palestinian refugee brethren-their needs were mostly forgotten.

In September, the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations reported major funding shortfalls-donors had contributed only 37 percent of the $4.5 billion needed to provide for refugees in 2015.

Americans weren't overly disturbed by reports of the dead and wounded in Syria and photos of bombed-out houses-after endless violence in Iraq, the average Joe is impervious to the destruction unleashed by decades of misguided U.S. foreign policy. After all, we have unmet obligations at home, caring for the poor and homeless. As hundreds of refugees drowned crossing the Mediterranean or Aegean seas in flimsy and overcrowded boats, or suffocated trapped in locked vans, Americans directed their outrage at human smugglers.

Then two things happened to capture the world's-and even Americans'-attention. The first was the widespread publication of the wrenching images of a Turkish policeman gently picking up the body of a tiny drowned toddler, 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, from the sand of a beach resort in Bodrum, Turkey. Follow-up photos and articles focusing on Aylan's devastated father, who also lost his wife and their 5-year-old son when their boat sank, brought home the horror of the Syrian refugee crisis. The tragedy at last prompted soul searching, especially when it was learned that the Kurdis had been denied asylum in Canada, where Aylan's aunt and uncle have lived for two decades.

The next development was the dramatic influx of refugees trying to reach Europe before winter weather and sealed borders made the crossing even more treacherous. News reports captured desperate women clasping babies, and children pushing their grandparents in wheelchairs. These aren't migrants looking for jobs. They are victims of war who have given up hope for peace at home. Syrian refugees aren't looking for a blanket, food basket or a tent, but for a future.

Americans were disgusted when Hungary's right-wing anti-immigration Prime Minister Viktor Orban, dubbed Europe's Donald Trump, blocked mostly Muslim asylum-seekers headed for more generous European countries. Determined Syrian refugees pulled out their cell phones and used Google Maps to find new routes to bypass Hungary and hike through Croatia and Austria to head for Germany, which expects 800,000 refugees this year.

German and French leaders presented proposals to require each European Union nation to take a designated number of refugees. European governments chose to support the humanitarian principles of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and accept more refugees, instead of Orban's racist refusal to help.

Refugee Council USA (RCUSA), a coalition of U.S.-based organizations dedicated to refugee protection and welcome, wrote a letter to President Barack Obama on Sept. 9 urging the U.S. to increase the number of refugees that we resettle to 200,000 for FY '16, with 100,000 of them being Syrian. Thousands of Americans signed a petition calling on the Obama administration to resettle at least 65,000 Syrians by 2016.

Finally the United States agreed to shoulder at least some of its share of the burden, and President Obama announced on Sept. 10 that the U.S. would accept 10,000 Syrians in the 2016 fiscal year. …

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