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Syrian refugee children stand in a hall of the Altinozu camp in Hatay city in Turkey, located on the border with their violence-racked homeland, on Sept. 18, 2012.
If you need a measure of how desperate Syria’s refugees are, contemplate this: Many are fleeing to Iraq.
It’s astonishing that Iraq, once the refugee equivalent of the Titanic, has become a lifeboat. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that there are 15,096 Syrian refugees in Iraq, and that they are among 100,000 Syrians who have fled to Jordan, Turkey, and beyond since Bashar Al-Assad’s regime began fighting with opponents in March 2011.
Who are these refugees? Children and families make up a huge number. At Jordan’s Za’atri refugee camp, according to a UNHCR spokesperson, children accounted for 60 percent of new arrivals in one week. Syrian troops recently killed a six-year-old boy fleeing to Jordan.
Camps such as Za’atri, with blasting heat and brutal winds, are a harsh place for children and parents alike. Over these new tent cities hang questions: Will the world’s attention span last longer than a news cycle, and what will be done to save people in danger if the crisis worsens?
For Christians, these questions are not rhetorical and the answers are inescapable. Leviticus 19 commands us to love and care for refugees. To love is to welcome, not abandon. Therefore, we are commanded to embrace people fleeing violence and persecution, from Syria or anywhere else.
What does this mean, in terms of Syria’s displaced families? Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), with several decades of hands-on involvement in resettling refugees from war, can speak to the need to do three things well:
- First, the United States must acknowledge that this crisis is not going away, since fighting has already left some 2.5 million people within Syria needing support and 1.2 million internally displaced, according to the U.N. Regional Humanitarian Relief Coordinator. There are encouraging signs that the U.S. State Department is recognizing and taking steps to deal with this deepening disaster.
- Second, we must avoid the mistakes of the past. The administration of former president George W. Bush initially moved far too slowly to resettle Iraqi refugees from the latest Gulf War, allowing them to trickle in at a rate vastly inadequate to ease their suffering or lessen the dangers facing our allies.
- Third, we must work to ensure that when some new disaster grabs the headlines, Syria’s refugees are not forgotten and left abandoned in scattered camps, without hope of either return to their homeland or humane resettlement.
There’s nothing new in these points, only a reliance on traditional values. America’s leadership around the world rests on our reputation for coming to the aid of people in danger; the Christian values from which LIRS draws its strength tell us to welcome and protect the stranger.
Experience shows that things can quickly turn deadly for refugees. Foresight and preparation can mitigate those disasters. Should the Syrian refugee crisis deepen, those same values should guide a well-managed, secure, and humane refugee program. And because there are Muslims and Christians across the spectrum of refugee-serving humanitarian bodies worldwide, such a program cannot help but model the virtues of interfaith cooperation. The list of partners in the UNHCR’s Syria Regional Refugee Response, which includes everyone from Catholic Relief Services to Muslim Aid, attests to this cooperation.
Should the conflict become even further protracted, resettlement should be considered a viable option for Syrians driven from their homes by this upheaval. LIRS is ready to help. We have refugee resettlement experience reaching back to the period following World War II. Most recently, through our 28 affiliates in 26 states, we resettled thousands of Iraqis and others displaced by the last Gulf War.
Recently, there have been encouraging signs that the U.S. State Department is taking the crisis very seriously. On Sept. 5, the department announced that the United States was providing an additional $21 million to the U.N. World Food Program, including $6.7 million to support Syrians displaced to neighboring countries. With this new assistance, the United States is providing more than $100 million for humanitarian activities both inside Syria and in neighboring countries, including $23.1 million to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The coming weeks will be critical, and in the long run, this immediate aid probably will not be enough. Regardless of the news, whether hopeful or tragic, we owe it to the Syrian families in the camps to remember them and keep a watchful eye on their well-being. The innocent victims of this conflict will be every bit as worthy of our attention a year from now as they are today. Let us keep watch, and be ready to help in every way.
Stacy Martin is vice president for mission advancement at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service..