Cutting through the helplessness of the refugee crisis

Fences. Barbed wire. Plexiglass riot shields. Refugee camps. Unanswered questions. Terror. Roiling seas in flimsy boats. Waiting. Fear. Walking. Huddled in wet, cold fields with no shelter and no certainty about what tomorrow brings. This and so much more is the experience of refugees fleeing the violence and civil war of Syria in Europe.

And now there is a new misery: Investigators into the Paris attacks found a Syrian passport near the bodies of dead bombers and assert that one was a Syrian who entered Greece as a refugee. This piece of information means that all those seeking refuge are now suspect and subject to fear, hatred and another layer of vulnerability. There is already so much misery, and now this. The terrible actions of a few punishing all. The horrific violence that slayed cafe-goers, partiers and fans of rock music is the same violence that these countless men, women and children are fleeing.

Can they still have hope? Can they still find a destination, a future free of violence and political turmoil? Can they keep going? Winter is coming, fast and bitter.

I have watched this crisis ebb and flow across my daily newspaper, mostly just shaking my head and feeling disconnected and helpless. Like many others, the picture of tiny Aylan Kurdi, his lifeless form washed up on a Greek island, affected me deeply. The three-year-old Syrian boy — who along with his mother, father and siblings — fled the militias and fighting in their hometown of Kobane only to drown as rough seas overtook the crowded boat. Only the father survived. I opened the newspaper to that now unforgettable picture and burst into tears. It is a funny expression that is often incorrect — burst into tears. But that is what happened. An outburst of sorrow, anguish and even responsibility. What have I done for these refugees? What have I done to help Aylan’s family? Nothing.

We talked all through breakfast — my husband, our eight-year-old daughter Rosena and three-year-old son Seaus, who wears Velcro shoes, little red shirts and blue pants. He is fatter and taller than little Aylan, and loves playing on the beach at the edge of waters, like the Aegean Sea, that took that little boy’s life. We talked with our kids about the war in Syria, which has created more than 4 million refugees. We talked about how our country has accepted fewer than 1,500 so far (.04 percent of those who have fled their homes) and said that it would allow another 70,000 over the next year (if they could pass through the world’s most rigorous vetting process). We saw that they were still listening, still feeling, and so we pointed out that the United States has provided nearly $8 billion in military aid to Syria since 2011.

“We have space for a family,” Rosena said, her eyes taking in our large dining room and mentally rearranging the rooms upstairs. “They could have my room and I can be in Seamus’s top bunk.” This is how they want to be sleeping anyway, even though neither would sleep well if we greenlighted this plan. I was bowled over by her generosity. It cut through all the fear, scapegoating, othering, racism, politics, bureaucratic inertia and red tape that defines Washington and other world powers.

Rosena is not alone. In fact, the mayors of an impressive number of cities have made a similar call to President Barack Obama. Last month, mayors from around the country sent a letter to the White House that read, in part: We “urge you to increase still further the number of Syrian refugees the United States will accept for resettlement. The surge of humanity fleeing war and famine is the largest refugee crisis since World War II. The United States is in a position to lead a global narrative of inclusion and support. Our cities have been transformed by the skills and the spirit of those who come to us from around the world. The drive and enterprise of immigrants and refugees have helped build our economies, enliven our arts and culture, and enrich our neighborhoods.”

The letter is signed by the mayors of major metropolises like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Boston and my very own hometown of Baltimore, as well as smaller cities like Allentown, Pennsylvania and Central Falls, Rhode Island. It is worth reading in full and working with your own mayor and city council to get more cities to add their names to the list. It made me cry so hard because the letter represents some of the best of our country.

Three of my grandparents were immigrants to the United States. My mother’s parents were both born and raised in County Antrim in Northern Ireland. Elizabeth O’Mullan was the eldest of four. Their father died when she was a teenager. She educated and trained as a secretary and a social worker, but as a Roman Catholic, she could not find work. Responsible for her younger siblings and mother, she decided to follow hundreds of thousands of her countrymen, who left Ireland because of religious persecution and lack of opportunity. She settled in New Jersey. William McAlister was the second youngest of 10 children on a poor farm — also in County Antrim. Most of his siblings were boys and there wasn’t enough work for them all, so he headed for the United States too. There was no terror or barbed wire in their stories. The indignities of Ellis Island, the fear of the unknown and separation from their homelands seemed small prices to pay for the promises of a brighter future. Friends told McAlister to look up the good-hearted, hardworking Elizabeth when he landed.

The rest was history. They lived in New Jersey all their lives. My grandfather started a contracting company and made a good living. They owned a home, raised seven kids, summered at the shore, sent money back to relatives in the North and were stalwart members of their local Catholic Church.

It is not hyperbole or hokum to say that they lived the American Dream. They escaped poverty, lack of opportunity and religious discrimination with almost nothing and they built a life, a living and a legacy in the United States.

It grieves and angers me that those opportunities are closed to Syrians, who have already suffered so much. What can we do to make President Obama and Congress listen to the wisdom of an eight-year-old girl and 18 mayors?

There is no doubt plenty we can do. Perhaps, for inspiration, we should look to what others around the world are doing to not just sit idle, but have some positive effect on this ever-unfolding tragedy. For example, we have friends from the War Resisters League who spend time each year in Turkey. This year, they sent out an email to friends and family saying that they were raising money for refugee efforts. I was so grateful for the opportunity to be connected to what was happening so far away. We had given through our church to refugee efforts, but this felt so much more direct and immediate.

Volunteers at Pikpa pack goods for refugees. (WNV / Tom Leonard)

Volunteers at Pikpa pack goods for refugees. (WNV/Tom Leonard)

They have just returned and here is some of what they shared: “Without exaggeration, this was one of the saddest and most rewarding experiences of our lives. Pikpa camp in Mytilini on the Greek island of Lesbos is the all-volunteer camp we went to. It was an unused summer camp for disabled children that four activists occupied three years ago. Their vision was to open a new kind of refugee camp with a focus on treating the residents with respect and providing conditions that enable them to live with dignity until they are ready to move on.” Our friends raised more than $8,000 and brought with them medicine, medical equipment and other critically needed items — simple things like baby carriers and diapers.

On their last day at Pikpa, our friends helped other volunteers amass winter clothes for the refugees. “This was a reminder of what the refugees face as they head further north into Europe,” they wrote. “Not just chilly weather, though, but a sometimes hostile reception. In the face of this reality, it is reassuring to know that it is not just on Lesbos, but from Athens to Norway, even in Hungary, there are many thousands of ordinary people making extraordinary efforts, stepping up and welcoming their fellow human beings in their time of need.”

I have read and reread these words, finding hope and sustenance in the efforts of ordinary people to help and save and take care of one another. It cuts through the helplessness I feel.

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