Syria: What to do with refugees? Start with a message of hope.
By Michelle Nunn, President & CEO of CARE
*Note: This article previously ran on 3/15/2016 on Huffington Post.
For five years, the world has watched, with varying degrees of attention, the civil discord in Syria erupt into the largest humanitarian disaster in a generation. Advocates in Syria have cried out for global leadership, the international community has called for the cessation of hostilities, and organizations leading the humanitarian response have pleaded for support. And yet, this last year has been the most violent and destructive.
The UN and non-governmental organizations are receiving less than half of the assistance they say is necessary for a minimal response to the enormous suffering.
Complexity is stifling action, and fear is too often drowning out compassion. Syrians are left to suffer. So, at this five-year mark, what are we called upon to do? It is easy enough for skepticism and despair to overcome us. Even as the leader of one of the largest humanitarian organization’s in the world, I can feel paralyzed by the challenge.
But this past week I have seen the power of small messages of compassion as an antidote to that hopelessness. We at CARE arranged for recipients of the original CARE Packages — boxes of food and supplies sent by Americans to families clinging to survival in Europe after World War II — to write letters to Syrian children whose families have fled to Jordan. The CARE Package recipients were refugees the last time the world saw a human displacement the size of Syria’s.
Even we were surprised by the weight of their messages and the resulting connection between refugee children of one generation and those of another.
WWII refugee Helga Kissell, 87, of Colorado Springs, wrote Sajeda, a 16-year-old Syrian refugee. Helga’s letter described the hardships she had to overcome in Germany, their common interest in music and these reassuring words: “Always remember the good times and look forward to what the future may bring.”
Sajeda, upon the reading the letter, broke down and began to cry. “Helga,” she said through tears, “made me feel like I exist.”
On this somber anniversary, we need to begin by truly standing with the people of Syria in recognition of their suffering. When I talked with Syrian refugees on the border, in Turkey and in Jordan, I heard about the support they required — the need for emergency relief such as grocery debit cards, shelter, hygiene kits, and the opportunity for school attendance. But I was also struck by what I repeatedly heard and was articulated by a Syrian doctor, a refugee, who is now serving in cross-border medical missions: “The Syrian people need to see some message of hope from the world.”
Having been so long stung by the ingredients of war — oppression, intolerance, hatred, violence — Syrians need healing, not just for their bodies. They need a signal that the world is not indifferent, that we see them, and we can name their pain and suffering.
Gunter Nitsch, an orginal CARE Package recipient who lives in Chicago, told 8-year-old Zaher that he was in a similarly dire situation seven decades ago in Germany, when his future also looked bleak. “I’m writing to share my story with you to let you know that, no matter how bad things may seem, there are good people in this world who can make everything better.”
So let us begin by showing our care for and solidarity with those suffering in a conflict that has dragged on far too long.
We believe that these simple but powerful expressions of care can be a step toward action and change for the people of Syria. Please join Helga and Gunter by sending your own message of compassion.