I have a little boy, a 6-year-old who likes Spiderman and watches that can go underwater. He has a room full of books and a playroom full of toys and lacks for nothing. We had the privilege this summer of going to Turkey on holiday, from where we took a boat to the island of Kos. Our boat was a large ferry, well constructed, lined with life jackets, and complete with drinks and popcorn for sale on board.
When we got to Kos, we decided to take a bus to visit the ruins where Hippocrates once practiced his art of healing. We waited for the bus in a park. Syrian refugees waited with us. I wondered where they hoped to go and how they got to Kos. I sincerely doubted it was on a comfortable ferry that served popcorn, though I did not at the time realize the horrific journey most of them had likely taken on a fragile plastic dinghy.
A little boy about my son’s age saw my kids playing. He ran up to them and gave my son his stuffed animal, a small brown little thing, that had clearly been loved to bits. My son, who has shelves of stuffed animals, did not have a clue what that child had offered him. That child had offered my son a treasure that had probably seen death more than once. After playing with it a little while, my son returned it, and we made our way onto the bus.
I wonder about that little boy now. I wonder where he is and how he is, even more so after seeing the horrifying image of the toddler lying inert in the Turkish surf, face down in his sweet red shirt. And after reading about the individuals who died after being abandoned in the back of a truck in Austria left. Abandoned is a word that keeps coming to mind as I continue to watch cable news videos and read articles of the thousands of people fleeing to Europe from Syria. How to do the right thing without abandoning these people, I wonder?
That feeling is not shared by all, of course.
Video footage of a Hungarian camerawoman purposely tripping refugees running across the border may not have been seen by as many because it is not as obviously compelling. But it was absolutely astonishing. In the footage, a Syrian man, was literally fleeing for his life with nothing more than a backpack on his back and his more cherished possession in his arms, his child. Suddenly, a journalist with a camera flung out her leg deliberately to trip him, and he and his child tumbled to the ground. The camerawoman’s petty gesture of hatred gave me, and probably most other viewers, terrible pause.
How could she do that? Have these poor refugees not suffered enough during their journeys through war, starvation, illness, fear, and betrayal? It seemed shockingly cold-hearted to see this by-stander add to the man’s hardship through that small but excruciatingly mean act.
How she could do that, or rather, why she did that, is a crucial question. We all feel crushed for that father, hurt that he had to endure one more act of violence in this flight for life. Yet the camerawoman’s vantage point is also worth examining. It may be that she was afraid of the asylum seekers because they have experienced so much war and death; they are different in their clothing, religion, and language; they could take away jobs or scant resources that she and her family feel a need to protect—all the usual reasons.
Just as individuals are afraid, governments have been afraid too. It’s hard to fathom how to absorb these millions of people into sometimes tiny countries, as in the case of Jordan, and sometimes already financially burdened countries, like Greece. Governments want to be responsible to their own people first and foremost, and part of that responsibility involves fiscal prudence and good use of resources.
It seems like governments also need to consider humanitarian responsibility. Individuals want governments to sanction our collective empathy. We know that we too would flee our own neighborhoods if our children were daily at risk of dying and if extremists were recruiting our husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons to kill and be killed.
My conversations with Mary (not her real name) remind me that people fleeing their home countries are not leaving because they love our countries so much. In her case, she left behind a gorgeous home near a lake in northern Iran. A woman “of a certain age” left a lifetime in her home town, including her parents, siblings, and friends in a sudden departure with her husband and two grown sons. Her sons had been caught on video at a home group trying to learn more about the Christian faith. Although none of them were yet Christians, the mere idea of it, with proof by video, was enough to leave them vulnerable to execution. Although they had family sell the house to pay for their journey and waiting period in Indonesia, Mary would love to go back to that beautiful hometown and her beloved family, and she holds out hope that someday she will be able to do just that.
Similarly, other refugees we know here in Jakarta would far rather return home if it were safe—return to their parents, homes, the food they prefer, and the landscape they are used to—than go it alone in unchartered territory where they will be “aliens,” usually at the bottom end of the ladder when it comes to jobs and equitable social status.
Based on my experiences, particularly at Roshan Learning Center, I encourage nations hosting asylum seekers and refugees to do at least three things:
1. Welcome refugees with kindness and compassion, providing temporary refuge while their home countries get out from the worst of the disarray and violence. Temporary refuge could mean creating refugee camps or offering provisions to individuals for short-term (1-2 year) accommodations, living expenses, and access to health care and education.
2. Increase financial and human resources to major humanitarian agencies such as UNICEF, World Relief, and so forth, so that aid is available to the neediest immediately; and to processing agencies such as UNHCR. It is imperative that people’s cases receive adequate attention efficiently so that people don’t languish too long on the sidelines of society and become less productive, less skilled, and less well over time. People have the right to know relatively quickly (again, within 1-2 years) if they have the option to resettle in another country. So far this year, the UN has received only $1.67 of the $4.5 billion it needs to support Syrian refugees alone.
3. Make longer term (3-5 year) plans for both repatriation and expatriation. Millions of these asylum seekers will want very much to go home and rebuild their neighborhoods as soon as it is safe to do so. Individuals in safe and educated nations should take every opportunity to send repatriating refugees back home armed not with weapons that will feed extremists’ armies but rather with an appreciation for democracy and the goodwill of hundreds of individuals in host nations who acted with compassion and generosity.
Finally, I urge people to keep in mind the wisdom of Queen Rania of Jordan. The small country in the Middle East recently accepted 1.4 million refugees (unlike most of its neighbors). Queen Rania pointed out that it is this is a refugee crisis, not a migrant crisis, and perhaps the biggest humanitarian emergency of our time. Migrants come and go as they please. Refugees are in search of survival.
Take that little boy in Kos. He no doubt would rather be with his friends on a Syrian playground, surrounded by family and neighbors. But hard reality made him a refugee, one with little possessions and security. Even so, he reached to my family as best he could. Perhaps it’s time for the global community to return the favor.