Last Friday, in a grim prelude to Christmas, China and Russia vetoed cross-border aid deliveries from Turkey and Iraq to millions of desperate Syrian civilians.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused the two countries of having “blood on their hands.” He’s correct, since Russian planes continue to bomb hospitals and markets in rebel-held areas of Syria. What Pompeo didn’t say was that tens of thousands of those refugees are Kurds driven from their homes when President Trump gave Turkey the green light to invade Syrian Kurdistan.
This kind of hypocrisy has become the rule worldwide when it comes to refugees and asylum seekers, as governments pull up the moat, with the Trump administration eager to take the lead.
So it’s more important than ever that individuals who care about this issue step up and do something. Here’s how.
“Donate, educate, volunteer, and vote,” says Mark Hetfield, CEO of HIAS, a Jewish nonprofit agency with a 138-year history of aiding refugees overseas and helping resettle those admitted to the United States.
Let’s look one by one at these suggestions.
Start with education. Many Americans may not grasp the scope of the refugee problem. “We have the worst refugee crisis the world has ever seen, while fewer and fewer governments are stepping forward,” says Chris George, executive director of IRIS, a New Haven, Conn.-based refugee resettlement agency.
The number of refugees has doubled over the past chaotic decade. In an era of rising nationalism, civil wars, ethnic cleansing, and climate change, where one or two superpowers no longer anchor the globe, that number now tops 25 million.
Of course, there is a limit to how many refugees and asylum seekers the United States or Europe can absorb. But many Americans may not realize the Trump administration has slashed the U.S. program to admit legal refugees from 85,000 in 2016 to 18,000 in this fiscal year. And we are now one of only four countries in the world to charge impoverished asylum seekers $50 per head to apply and $490 to apply for work authorization, thus putting us in league with Iran, Fiji, and the immigrant-averse Australia.
So donations to help refugees overseas have never been more important, as humanitarian aid agencies grow overwhelmed by the scale of the crises. In the case of northern Syria, hardly anyone is paying attention as Turkey forces Kurds to flee into makeshift camps or into Iraq. Meantime, inside Iraq, tens of thousands of Yazidis — forced to abandon their homes by ISIS, who slaughtered their men and made their women into sex slaves — still live in freezing camps.
Two other particularly awful cases: the one million Muslim Rohingya forced out of predominantly Buddhist Myanmar into camps in neighboring Bangladesh. In a symbol of the times, Myanmar’s Nobel Prize winner and civilian leader Aung San Suu Ky — once lionized as a freedom fighter — now makes excuses for the war crimes of her country’s generals.
Meantime, closer to home, the Trump administration is now forcing tens of thousands of Central American asylum seekers to wait for months in lawless Mexican border towns where they are prey to kidnapping and murder while U.S. courts consider their cases.
So if you are in a giving mode, here are some humanitarian aid agencies that are helping refugees in these crises: International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, and Doctors Without Borders. Also, HIAS, which gives legal aid to asylum seeking refugees along the Mexican border and is helping the endless flow of Venezuelan refugees south of the border. You can learn more and donate online on these sites.
But there is also much volunteer work to be done with helping resettle refugees who have made it legally into the USA.
HIAS-Pennsylvania (an independent affiliate of HIAS) has a Philly Neighbor program that enables churches, synagogues, families, or individuals to work with an immigrant family for a year to help them adjust, to tutor them in English, or help them find jobs. Rona Buchalter, director of Refugee Programming and Planning, says that, at present, the local HIAS organization is handling refugees from Afghanistan, religious minorities from, Ukraine, Senegal, Myanmar, Burma, Pakistan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Community resettlement of immigrants — in Philly and elsewhere — increases understanding of refugees and the value they bring to our country. Hopefully, it also creates local pressure groups that will press for a return to the leadership role this country used to play in resettling victims of wars.