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[heading size=”15″]Syrian Crisis uproots lives as refugees fight for right to ‘dignity and compassion’[/heading] Europe is experiencing its 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.
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. These refugees from other countries thought they had found safety in Syria, but 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.
[quote cite=”Rasha Abousalem, global first responder”]The trend seems to be … the citizens of many European countries want to help, but the governments are the problem.[/quote] 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 [Greece] 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 the refugees are still human beings though they look different from 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 urge 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 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 United States has resettled fewer than 2,000 Syrian refugees, refusing thousands more. 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, GFR 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.
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 last 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.”
She believes that it’s 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 socioeconomic life, while refugees seek 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 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.”
Written by Nikol Slatinska[vc_empty_space][heading size=”14″]United States keeps out refugees leaving many without shelter, safety [/heading]Wind whips away at their hair as they look over the land not yet crossed. Displaced from their homes because of war, they seek refuge in places far more stable than the lands they were born in. They have already travelled thousands of miles to reach safety — a couple more miles, and maybe they’ll find it.
The accessibility to their safety does not necessarily hinge on their arrival to Europe, but instead on if these countries will allow them inside their borders. Several European countries have allowed refugees to seek shelter inside their lands, including Germany, which is projected to take in 800,000 to one million refugees by the end of 2015, according to Al-Jazeera.
The United States’ acceptance of refugees pales in comparison to these European countries, however. Currently, the United States limits itself on accepting 70,000 refugees, but Secretary of State John Kerry announced that this quota will be raised to 85,000 in 2016, and to 100,000 in 2017, according to the Pew Research Center.
One reason for this disparity may be the difference among these countries’ location in the world. European nations are easier for the Middle Eastern refugees to access than the United States because it is closer in proximity. Also, there is only land on the route from the Middle East to Europe, Carolyn Shaw, professor of political science at Wichita State University, said.
Current U.S. immigration laws also play a part in accepting refugees, as certain refugees find it more difficult to enter the nation depending on their country of origin and skills.
“The United States has a very extensive screening process for refugees, particularly for those from the Middle East, to prevent terrorists from being admitted to the country,” Shaw said. “The United States also gives preference to refugees who come with skills/education that can [help them] land back on their feet so the resettlement process is not as difficult economically.”
These factors combine together to give a general consensus of the United States not being “particularly welcoming,” Mack Shelley, political science professor at Iowa State University said. He says this gives the impression that people see refugees and immigrants as burdens unless they happen to possess money or skill in the science or technology fields. Shaw says the United States attempts to dissipate this view by contributing to the crisis in other ways.
“The United States is trying to counter a negative image by providing significant funding for humanitarian aid and refugee camps that are in neighboring states, since this is where the most people are who have the most need,” Shaw said. “Currently, the United States is the largest international financial-donor.”
While the United States may be contributing to the global issue, Shelley says this does not change the general view on the refugee crisis at home.
“The political environment right now is pretty much poisonous, with immigrants used as scapegoats by reactionary politicians, so it’s difficult to see how this environment will improve,” Shelley said. “It’s difficult to be positive about United States immigration and refugee policy until there is a major change in public attitudes and until progressive candidates take over.”
However, regardless of whether a country can accept refugees or not, this involves more than simply policy, Global Issues leader Sonya Hu says. She says this is a matter of morals and a sense of duty.
“Each person naturally has a certain duty or obligation to help someone who is in need of help, whenever they are able,” Hu said. “Likewise, one who is better off than another is commonly seen as a morally good or ethical person when they help someone who is less privileged. Just like people, states have a duty to help others when they can. There are a number of nations that are capable of assisting others, such as the United States, U.K., Australia, and so on, and because of that, there’s no need for them to allow more people to suffer by preventing their entry into these nations.”
Hu first learned about the refugee crisis last year, when she was just a member of the club she now leads. The Global Issues leader then introduced the issue by bringing a guest speaker formerly of the Peace Corps, who described her experience with refugees and what she had learned.
infographic by Neil Cathro; information source: amnesty.org
“She explained that it was impossible for a single person to entirely resolve the issue of conflict, but by simply changing the life of a single family, or even a single person, one could make a difference,” Hu said. “She stressed that anyone could do something.”
While most European countries believe they should contribute somehow, not all agree on what the best course of action is. The U.K. Prime Minister, David Cameron, said that instead of accepting refugees from unstable countries, the best course of action is to help these countries become more secure, as it will provide the best long-term effect, according to The Guardian.
These countries also cannot keep helping to the extent that they have. Thanks to its large influx of refugees, Germany is experiencing a rise in instability. Towns that took in a large amount of people saw a disruption in the peace they once knew because of the refugees still pushing to survive however way they can.
This caused a tense mood among the local Germans, who had to alter their lives to make way for these refugees, according to Spiegel International, a news website in Germany.
All of these factors combined prompted criticism toward Germany Prime Minister Angela Merkel. She remained steadfast on this issue, insisting that the borders must remain open.
This led to many German officials condemning her actions to the point of speculating whether she will remain in office, according to Spiegel International.
However, on Oct. 21 Merkel announced that Germany would deport thousands of unwelcome migrants out of the country. This is an attempt to curb the amount of refugees taking shelter in the nation and was also a response to growing objections and complaints.
Hu believes these events in Europe will affect the United States later, and for that reason people should care.
“Although it seems as though this issue doesn’t pertain to us in the United States today, the state of the international community does impact domestic issues,” Hu said. “Similar to the butterfly effect, something, no matter how small and how far away, can have an effect. International conflicts impact domestic policies, trade, economy, and so much more.”
Oct. 21 Merkel announced that Germany would deport thousands of unwelcome migrants out of the country. This is an attempt to curb the amount of refugees taking shelter in the nation and was also a response to growing objections and complaints.
Hu believes these events in Europe will affect the United States in an unexpected way later, and for that reason people should care.
“Although it seems as though this issue doesn’t pertain to us in the United States today, the state of the international community does impact domestic issues,” Hu said. “Similar to the butterfly effect, something, no matter how small and how far away, can have an effect. International conflicts impact domestic policies, trade, economy and so much more.”
Written by Rochita Ghosh [vc_empty_space][heading size=”15″]Relief: Local organization helps refugees assimilate[/heading] Lori Stoll spends every day working out of her car. As the director of the Columbia nonprofit City of Refuge, Stoll always drives across town, doing a variety of tasks to help recent refugees. From ferrying people to doctor’s appointments to talking someone through a job application, Stoll has learned to do it all.
“I go to refugees’ homes and find out things that they need and help with everything it takes to get used to a new culture,” Stoll said. “Every day is different, according to their needs. I’ll walk them through what they need to do. It’s kind of like being a mom to those 50-100 different families.”
Stoll began working with refugees as a college student, tutoring Vietnamese children who fled their war-torn country. She said the experience opened her eyes to their struggles and inspired her to dedicate her life to helping refugees like them achieve a better living. When African refugees began arriving in Columbia around 10 years ago, she knew something needed to be done to help them assimilate to the American way of living.
“When I met the Burmese, the need was pretty overwhelming. There was only one caseworker here in Columbia at the immigration office and they had a different philosophy,” Stoll said. “They were just trained to get them as independent as possible in as short amount of time as possible, but what I was seeing was a lot of trauma and a lot of cultural adjustment that took more time. I wanted to be available so that they could heal.”
[quote cite=”Lori stroll, director of City of Refuge”]I’ll walk them through what they need to do. It’s kind of like being a mom to those 50-100 different families.[/quote] Senad Music, a former refugee from Bosnia, said culture shock is one of the most pressing challenges refugees face. As the office manager for the Refugee and Immigration Services of the Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri, located at 201 W. Broadway, Music has had to walk refugees through tasks that to many seem second-nature, such as how to close and lock a door. This ‘fish-out-of-water’ struggle many refugees face makes it difficult for Music to help them with more complicated matters, like filling out job applications and tax forms.
“Our main thing is to make refugees in the first 30 to 90 days self-sufficient. That means get a job, get a driver’s license, things like that,” Senad said. “It’s very hard. There are many people who come here and are uneducated. They cannot read or write even in their own language, so it is very hard.”
Music said the Refugee and Immigration Services office aims to ease refugees’ transition to the United States by paying for their housing, buying furniture and household supplies and purchasing food.
The office does all this on a one-time lump sum of $925 per refugee, an amount that Music said is not nearly enough to start with. He knows first-hand the financial difficulties refugees face as newcomers. After being held for three years as a de-facto prisoner in a refugee camp in Serbia, Music was able to come to America by way of the Red Cross. When he arrived in Columbia, however, his problems were far from fixed.
“I wish nobody will go through [what I went through]. I came here and was the first Bosnian refugee in Columbia, so nobody spoke my language. The only language I can understand is Russian,” Music said. “I had to work two jobs to bring over my wife, my mother, my brother; now I have lots of relatives here. But when I came in 1996, it was nightmare. I work for hours cleaning offices, and it was very hard.”
Given that many current refugees are in a similar situation, one of City of Refuge’s goals is to help with the strain of multiple jobs and money troubles by providing transportation and education services. Senior Faramola Shonekan, a volunteer with City of Refuge, was recently tasked with driving a Jordanian woman to the eye doctor, and has also tutored children at the homes of refugee families. For Shonekan, the experience opened her eyes to the difficulties refugees face in Columbia.
“The refugees are operating under a need mentality, so anything they need that I can give them is worth so much to them,” Shonekan said. “For example, when I was able to get that lady an eye doctor appointment, she was just so grateful.”
Shonekan strongly believes in City of Refuge’s message and purpose, even selecting the organization as her charity of choice when she was a homecoming queen candidate in September.
“I’ve been volunteering since the school year started,” Shonekan said. “My favorite part about volunteering is learning about [refugees’] culture and everything they have gone through. It enlightens me and exposes me to our society and it makes me more grateful for what I have here.”
According to the City of Refuge website, people can help support the organization through donations and — more unexpectedly — dentistry services, which many refugees need desperately.
In Music’s opinion, however, one of the most important ways Columbia residents can help refugees is by educating themselves on refugee issues.
“One thing that I’d like to see is community doing more education on refugees,” Music said. “So they understand that they’re not here to take nobody’s job, to take nobody’s house, to take nobody’s family. They are here just to save themselves.”
Written by Jenna Liu[vc_empty_space][heading size=”15″]One girl’s long fight for freedom[/heading] Bwet Phaw is an average 17-year-old girl, small in stature and big at heart. She wears a lip color that extenuates her flashy smile. She throws her black, wavy hair up into a high, sassy ponytail. She idly twirls her earbuds round and round, wearing them around her neck like an accessory.
Phaw’s eyes gleam with excitement as she lists off her favorite pop artists: Taylor Swift, One Direction and Big Bang, a Korean boy band. She loves everything about the Korean culture from the language to the people.
But deep inside, Phaw associates herself with a different noun — one that is recurring daily on the news and one that is becoming more critical with each passing day.
Seven years ago, Phaw arrived in the land of America seeking peace and stability. Seven years ago, Phaw came to America as a refugee.
According to United Nations, there are more than 43 million people worldwide who are refugees, the highest number since the 1990s. Children constitute about 41 percent of this number, with 50 percent being women. These people are forcibly displaced as a result of country conflict and persecution, as was the case with Phaw and her family.
“The government of Burma wanted to control everything,” Phaw said. “I’ve never seen it, but Burman soldiers kill and attack not only our people but other ethnicities, too. They’ll rape girls and they kill people by torturing them to death. It’s really bad. I get really mad whenever I hear about it.”
Phaw, a Karen, was born in 1998 in Loikaw, Burma at a time when the Burman government was in a state of war. The Karen National Union (KNU) was the main resistance movement among the ethnic minority, making up seven percent of Burma’s total population. Many Karen people migrated to Thailand during this time, settling mostly on the Thai–Karen border.
Phaw and her family were among thousands of other Karenni and Burman neighbors seeking refuge and safety from the perilous government. The Burman government took control of whatever possible, including their own people. There was no freedom, and there was no peace.
“The government of Burma wanted to control everything,” Phaw said. “They want our land and we wanted our own freedom. Many people had to work for [peace] in order to survive. My parents worked on a farm until we moved to Thailand.”
Six months after Phaw’s birth, Phaw’s grandparents, father, mother and two sisters started their long journey to a foreign territory they would call home. By foot they traveled from sun up to sun down until they reached their final destination: a refugee camp in the city of Chiang Mai, Thailand.
“We walked to Thailand all day,” Phaw said. “I was just a baby then, but my mom said I liked holding onto her. My mother began to get really tired and weak, until she passed out and couldn’t walk anymore. My grandparents came back to carry me and my mother. We survived because of my grandfather.”
Upon arrival in Chiang Mai, Phaw and her family were stationed to a living headquarter where they were expected to build their own home for their family of seven. In a couple of years, the Phaw clan would grow to eight members with the birth of Phaw’s brother, Sha La Mo.
“The way we live in refugee camp, we don’t just ‘rent’ a house,” Phaw said. “We build one with small trees with leaves for the roof. It was pretty small. But it didn’t leak when it rained.”
Phaw and her family resided in refugee camp for 11 years, all the while living in constant fear and apprehension. Without any form of legal documentation such as a passport, Phaw and her family were confined to life in camp.
To make matters worse, Phaw’s father was enlisted to serve in the military. Phaw and her family members’ hearts were never at ease.
“My father was a soldier,” Phaw said. “He didn’t want to help, but he did for our own Karen people. They called my dad to work for three years, but it was a lie. My dad ended up working for more than three years. It was hard for all of us.”
infographic by Neil Cathro; information source: theguardian.com
Recollecting the past, Phaw vividly recalls one particular day at camp — a simple venture that could have cost her and her uncle’s life. Phaw tells the story with faith and interminable fear.
“One time, my uncle and I went to the forest to get vegetables and bamboo shoots, and across the road there were two Thai soldiers with four huge dogs,” Phaw said. “We were hiding under bamboo shoots so they wouldn’t see us — if they saw us, they would have killed us. I was really, really scared. All I could do as an eight-year-old was say a bible verse in Matthews 6:9 over and over again.”
Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven…
“I read that in Karen, and then the owner called the dog back,” Phaw said. “We were saved. I was so thankful [to God].”
During her stay at Chiang Mai, Phaw taught herself the Thai language through immersion of education and culture. The Thai government funded books for the children — but nothing more. Surrounded by refugees of all different backgrounds, Phaw became accustomed to the diverseness of home.
After 11 years of living in Thailand, Phaw’s life changed for the better.
In 2009, Phaw hopped onto an airplane for the very first time, watching the land that had harbored her and her family the past decade fade slowly into a mere speck. Several hours later, Phaw landed in the country of her newly proclaimed home: the United States of America.
“I was so excited [to come to America] because I got to see some of my friends who were already here [in Texas],” Phaw said. “I was really happy. I was also amazed by how big the city was and how many people there were. I never knew. I never knew there were so many different people and religions.”
Phaw lived in Houston, Texas for approximately four years before she and her family relocated to Columbia, Missouri, to join her aunt. Because her parents saw increasing tension and danger in Texas, Phaw’s family made the decision to shift life to a smaller, safer environment in a quaint, Midwestern town like Columbia.
“My parents wanted to move here because my aunt said that Columbia is a quiet place,” Phaw said. “It was also getting dangerous in Texas, and my brother is growing up, so my mother didn’t want him to get any bad influences.”
Two years have passed since Phaw moved to Columbia. Phaw and her family live steady, normal lifestyles, having obtained U.S. citizenship in May. Phaw’s mother has a job and her father is continuing his education at a community college.
In the two years that she’s been in Columbia, Phaw has improved substantially in English, her fourth language. Honing her language skills has enabled her to share her personality and spirit with others.
“She displays interest and positivity toward school, always wanting to learn new vocabulary,” ELL instructor Lilia Ben Ayed said. “I don’t have enough adjectives to describe Bwet. She’s diligent, cheerful, attentive, creative, cooperative, clever and always on time.”
Buoyant and affable, making friends comes naturally to Phaw. She’s the center of attention during lunchtime, always cracking jokes and making the whole table burst into laughter.
On Sundays, Phaw sings alongside her youth worship team at Midway Heights Baptist Church. On school days, she enjoys delving into the world of polygons and angles in her geometry class and in P.E., she enjoys playing soccer and volleyball. When Phaw has the time, she self-teaches the guitar, taking it one chord at a time. On weekends, Phaw attends Bible study at her church friends’ house.
Through this daily regime, and other unplanned moments, weeks turn into months, and months turn into years. Time only increases since the day Phaw left her country. And through it all, she holds onto what matters the most: her identity and her past.
“Home means family and culture,” Phaw said. “Home means my own country.”
Written by Joy Park