Syrian crisis uproots lives

Nikol Slatinska

Europe is experiencing the biggest refugee crisis since World War II. Almost 60 million people were displaced from their home countries last year because of war conflicts according to the UN Refugee Agency, and that number continues to rise with more than 700,000 Syrians displaced within the first five months of 2015, according to an article by World Vision.
Christian Fuchs is the director of communications for the Jesuit Refugee Agency (JRS), an organization that aids refugees worldwide in terms of education, emergency protection and healthcare. He said the JRS began working in the Middle East in 2008, serving refugees primarily from Iraq, but also from Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan, who were seeking refuge in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. At first, their programs were modest in terms of the number of people served and were focused on education and counseling.
However, the recent conflict in Syria caused a massive rise in the number of refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, not to mention the large number of people who were internally displaced within Syria. The JRS now also conducts programs in Turkey for refugees, most of whom are either from Syria or from other countries who thought they had found safety in Syria, but who had to flee again when the Syrian Civil War started.
“One quarter of Lebanon’s population are refugees from Syria,” Fuchs said. “Can you imagine if that happened here? That’s like the population of the U.S. increasing by 80 million people in just four years.”
With the majority of refugees flooding through borders from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia, European host countries are struggling to keep their economies from plummeting. Rasha Abousalem, Director of Humanitarian Operations at Global First Responder, said European countries are not handling the refugee situation well at all. Aside from Germany, the most accepting country of refugees, most have not been welcoming toward fugitive foreigners.
Hungary has been one of the most hostile and violent toward refugees at its borders,” Abousalem said. “Greece has been suffering a crippling economic crises for several years now, and [it] has been helping to its ability, although I do believe they can be more coordinated in their efforts. Overall, what the trend seems to be is that the citizens of many European countries want to help, but the governments are the problem.”
Abousalem said European countries need to remember that refugees are still human beings despite the fact that they look different than Europeans or believe in different ideologies. She thinks European countries need to start accepting refugees simply because they are fleeing for their lives.
Fuchs and the JRS urges European governments to work together and avoid taking one-sided action such as closing borders and confronting migrants with riot police and tear gas, as is currently happening on the Hungarian-Serbian border. He advises Europeans to respect the right of individuals to asylum, or protection from threatening governments.
“We continue to call upon the European Union to enact practical ways for refugees to arrive safely in Europe,” Fuchs said. “[This includes] the issuing of ‘humanitarian visas’, the lifting of onerous visa requirements, more resettlement places and the liberalization of family reunification rules.”
The American government has not been very helpful, either. Melissa Hastings, an intern at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), said that since the Syrian Civil War began in 2011, the U.S. has resettled less than 2,000 Syrian refugees. The USCRI believes the national government should resettle 100,000 Syrians by the end of 2016 through the U.S. refugee resettlement program in response to the enormity of the need.
“USCRI has advocated for the U.S. Government to call an international summit to find long-term solutions for the global refugee crisis as well as immediate solutions for Syrian refugees in Europe,” Hastings said. “It further believes that Gulf countries should provide financial support to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan and should accept Syrian refugees for resettlement. In addition, it is essential that hosting countries allow refugees to legally work. Doing so will help alleviate the extreme poverty faced by many refugees.”
Also serving to the essential needs of refugees, Global First Responder, the organization Abousalem works for, is a non-profit international medical relief agency. On her last trip to Greece in late September, Abousalem helped assist incoming refugee boats and provided medical care on several occasions. Since she’s fluent in Arabic, the native language of most of the refugees, she also served as a translator. The organization brought humanitarian aid boxes containing clothes, shoes and food as well.
The refugees that docked in Greece arrived from Turkey on flimsy rubber rafts meant for 10 people. On average Abousalem said Turkish smugglers pushed 50 people on one raft, the men along the perimeter and the women, children, elderly, and handicapped in the middle. In most cases, the motor would die out in the middle of the sea, causing the journey that should take an hour and a half take up to four hours. Often times, the motor would restart after someone removed the water inside of it, or the refugees would start rowing with the provided paddles to manually transfer themselves across.
“The worst case scenario I had seen was that there were no paddles provided, causing the raft full of refugees to stay stranded sometimes for hours out in the middle of the sea,” Abousalem said. “If the refugees were lucky enough to arrive to the Greek island of Lesvos, they were either extremely happy, laughing and taking selfies, or they were extremely emotional, crying and shaking from the stress the journey has caused them.”
Abousalem said people fainted from stress and dehydration while she was helping them off the boat, and several pregnant women experienced premature cramping.
Unfortunately, not everyone made it to the border. Many of the rafts flipped or burst open in the water, which led to drownings. Although the refugees wore life jackets, most were filled with grass or heavy styrofoam which only sped up the drowning process. One night Abousalem was there, a raft died out in the middle of the water during the pitch black darkness. An approaching vessel did not see the raft and slammed into it, causing 23 people to die.
“Every night people were dying. We knew it, but there was little we could do,” Abousalem said. “So one should ask him/herself: What is going on that people are willing to risk their lives and the lives of their children on such a journey? That is all I could think of as people were passing me baby after baby from the rafts.”
It is important to recognize that refugees are not migrants; they are fleeing for a reason.  In a nutshell, Abousalem explained that migrants leave for another region seeking a better socio-economic life, while refugees are seeking asylum from an immediate threat, and running for the safety of their lives.
What was most shocking to Abousalem was the number of Afghan refugees. When she spoke to the few Afghans that knew English, they informed her that they were escaping a rising Taliban and ISIS threat. In terms of nationality, most refugees Abousalem came into contact with were Syrian, or double displaced refugees, who are refugees within Syria from other countries, such as Iraq and Palestine.
“Aside from those within Syria, you had people escaping violence from Iraq, Iran and Yemen,” Abousalem said. “All of these groups are fleeing violence and death.”
Like Global First Responder, the JRS is also trying to help the situation and advises U.S. citizens to act quickly and demonstrate leadership at such a critical time. Fuchs said they can do this by increasing levels of humanitarian aid, investing in more education programs for refugees and boosting refugee admission numbers.
“Only by rallying the voices of citizens can we demonstrate that we will not stand by while this crisis unfolds before our eyes,” Fuchs said. “We must ensure that refugees are offered the dignity, compassion and opportunity they deserve.”