We must respond to genocide

https://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2016/may/24/how-we-survived-child-refugees-syria-burundi-patrick-willocq-in-pictures

Iveye, 6, carries her 18-month-old sister Rebecca on her back, re-enacting their five-day mountain crossing from Burundi to Tanzania. Children are often forced to make this journey alone, sometimes walking two days without food. Photograph: Patrick Willocq. Source: The Guardian

First, a confession

I have been a friend and family member to people from various countries since 2013, when I moved into a new neighborhood in Fort Worth, Texas. When I was an intern in an unfamiliar city, it was Iraqis, Somalians, Sudanese and Nepalis who invited me into their homes for elaborate meals moments after meeting me. It was a Muslim translator and her 12-year-old daughter who became my best friends. I will always be terribly biased in favor of people who have left their country of origin to find a better life. My great, great grandparents did it during the potato famine. My college friends did it when they were children in Mexico. This is the story of my country, and I will be proud of it until I write my last word.

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Syrian children pose for a photo.

Next, a history lesson

The year is 1939. The country is on the cusp of entering WWII. A legislative order has the power to save 20,000 Jewish children from certain extermination. How do we respond?

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Refugees from Nazi Germany on board the “St. Louis” en route to Cuba. The passengers will be denied entry into Cuba and the US and will be forced to return to Europe. 1939. — US Holocaust Memorial Museum

According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum: “Congressional leaders in both US houses allowed to die in committee a bill sponsored by Sen. Robert Wagner, D-N.Y., and Rep. Edith Rogers, R-Mass. This bill would have admitted 20,000 Jewish children from Germany above the existing quota.”

This was three months before turning away the St. Louis, a ship that held over 900 passengers fleeing the Nazis. We had the opportunity to respond and we failed.

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Passengers aboard the “St. Louis.” These refugees from Nazi Germany were forced to return to Europe after both Cuba and the US denied them refuge. May or June 1939. — US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Now, an overview of what we face today

  • With over 60 million displaced, the number of people who have been forced from their homes has reached levels not seen since WWII. Over 50 percent are children.
  • At present, the biggest crisis is in Syria with 4.6 million people displaced internally.
  • Other countries at risk of genocide include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, North and South Sudan, Myanmar, Libya and the Central African Republic.
  • The refugee crisis is especially dangerous for LGBTQ refugees who may be killed or persecuted by their neighbors in the camps.

“They are subjected to violence, those in camp will not live very long,” said Neil Grungras, executive director of Organization for Refugee, Asylum and Migration.  “They are terrified to come forward… it is a crisis within a crisis.”

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According to UNICEF, how to respond to children:

  1. It is the duty of all states to protect and promote all children, before and during displacement.
  2. Children should be treated first as children despite their migration status. This takes precedence over legal status.
  3. The family unit is a key principle; no children should be separated from their parents, unless it is for the children’s best interests.
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Kurdish children pose for a photo.

Underrepresented populations who have less coverage in the media:

Internally displaced Sudanese refugees in Chad: 1.8 million Sudanese are displaced and are living in camps in neighboring Chad, according to the UHCNR.

Tamil refugees in India: At the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, 100,000 ethnic Tamil refugees were resettled in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Afghan refugees in Iran: The stories of 900,000 registered refugees and 1.4 million unregistered asylum seekers in Iran have received less media coverage.

Horn of Africa refugees in Yemen: People from Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea have settled in Yemen, a country that receives immigrants on their way to more affluent countries. To further the conflict, recent revolts in Yemen have displaced native Yemenis causing tension as both groups look to survive and find work.

IDPs in Colombia: Since 2013, an estimated 5.7 million internally displaced persons live in Colombia. Afro-Colombian and indigenous populations are especially at risk as they become refugees in their own country.

Finally, a moral appeal

I’ve explored this crisis since my best friend LaVonna convicted our class in 10th grade with a speech by Sophie Scholl. Scholl, a young German woman and former Hitler Youth, had a moral change of heart, renounced her leader and country, and told the Germans the truth about the Nazis until she was executed at age 21. LaV’s speech showed these problems were real and persistent, but I  still have not done enough. It has been an academic issue. It has been one that does not affect my well-being.

For those who sat in history class during Holocaust lectures and wondered: “How would I respond?” now is your chance to know.

These issues are not new. U.S. immigration and foreign policy has been harmful, from Democratic and Republican administrations. However, now that we have a small bit of the populace’s attention, we can act. I will start by welcoming my neighbors and listening to what they need. I will oppose my president and any executive order that takes away the rights of certain populations.

Politicians use vulnerable people for re-election or to create a climate of fear. We must not allow this. Safety is a myth. It is not guaranteed in this life, and we are more likely to be killed by a vending machine than a refugee.

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I come from a Christian upbringing that has not always had the best response. However, if you study the works of the Old Testament and later New Testament writings, you will see that God is always on the side of the foreigner, the stranger, the person trying to find refuge. Jesus Christ was a refugee at one point in his life. If you study Islamic texts and culture, hospitality is paramount. You have a moral imperative to welcome and respect guests. Most faith practices have this. Most moral codes understand. Historical figures like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Elie Wiesel and Anne Frank have given us the speeches and language to respond. We know what is right.

When we say “never forget,” we must really mean it. Now when we wonder how we would act, we will really know.

Here are practical ways to respond to the refugee crisis:

  1. Speak out to local and international politicians.
  2. Speak out against anti-refugee rhetoric.
  3. Educate friends and family on the crisis.
  4. Reach out to new neighbors, welcome and walk alongside them.
  5. Donate to aid and relief efforts as well as development efforts.
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A sea of stoves at Auschwitz in Poland. Photo: Ashleigh Bugg

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