Years ago, I worked as an Asylum Program Officer for Human Rights First, an organization that provided free legal assistance to indigent refugees seeking political asylum in the United States.
The news feels overwhelmingly terrible lately. The photographs of children fleeing violence in Syria haunt us. A boy covered in dust and rubble – stunned in the back of an ambulance makes me weep. An iconic photo of a drowned toddler washed up a beach are burned in our collective memory. In the last days, Aleppo is an apocalypse. Stories I hear on the radio include a 9 year-old-boy, orphaned nobody knows when, who has been surviving in that Syrian city by running water for an indeterminate amount of time. Children waiting to evacuate no longer cry.
It is so easy to feel defeated. Don’t. There are things we can all do to assist refugees. This is why we can. And this is why we should. It feels insufficient to find enough power in the simple expression of gratitude. If it is true that the world instructs us in a deficit of human kindness and what happens in a vacuum where wars explode and governments fail, so too does it show us what happens when private citizens step up.
I worked for years wth refugees. I know that effective assistance to refugees changes lives – and strengthens the fabric of our society.
When I interviewed refugees, I kept a stash of crayons in my desk. I gave them to children because I did not want these children to hear their parents recount their stories – of torture, imprisonment, and the rape to which many had been subjected. So many refugees are women and their children.
I have now in my mind an image of their small hands grasping crayons. They drew sad and often disturbing pictures that somehow managed to hint strangely toward the life affirming. They drew stick figures of people smiling in the midst of gunfire that was not imaginary.
Refugee law is quite narrow and restrictive. Refugees and asylum seekers are a comparatively small group in overall immigration to the United States. We are rightly proud of a legacy of protection. We as a nation have offered protection imperfectly but we have done it. We should be proud.
There are few harder ways to gain admission to the United States. Refugees are the most vetted group of applicants for admission. Those who flee to the United States to seek asylum are often the very most imperiled.
The clients with whom I worked often faced imminent death, torture or imprisonment. In order to establish grounds for refugee/asylum status applicants must provide extensive evidence and testimony detailing why they would be singled out for persecution on account of their race, their religion, their membership in a social group, or their political opinion.
It is late as I am writing this. I am thinking of the heroes I have known. The larger things I have seen in the world of refugee protection – family reunions at airports, a beautiful communion dress on a lovely little girl, a picture – these things feel smaller to me tonight because the world can feel hard.
And still. I must remind that just and effective refugee policy does save lives. As a mother of small children I join in the horror of millions of other mothers and fathers who have seen images from Aleppo and other seemingly far-flung places – and are aghast.
In our shock and our feelings of helplessness, I remember that there are so many heroes working on behalf of refugees to change the ending. I urge others to resolve to help them. The Somali poet Warsan Shire wrote:
“You have to understand that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land."
Let us do right. Let us step up. Let us lead by example and inspire our own children to take action in the face of human catastrophe. All the parties are better for it.
Here are organizations you can support doing work abroad with the internally displaced populations and victims of conflicts, as well as with efforts to get them safe haven.
The International Committee of the Red Cross – Syria Program
Doctors Without Borders – Syria Program
Should you wish to support U.S.- based resettlement efforts, or support for legal advocacy on their behalf contact Human Rights First, or a local church, mosque, or synagogue to learn which local outfits are currently active. Consider donating gift cards to resettlement organizations so that they can purchase necessary items.
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