#RefugeesWelcome: The World Wakes Up as Doors Open to Syria's Refugees
The heartbreaking photo of Alan Kurdî* - the little boy whose body washed ashore in the resort town of Bodrum, Turkey last week - has transformed the global dialogue surrounding the humanitarian crisis in Syria from almost-nonexistent to urgent. Finally, it seems, the world is waking up and opening its arms and doors to Syrians.No longer are the numbers being counted only those of the people killed and displaced. Now the numbers are all about which countries will own up to the responsibility to help those in need, to offer the possibility of a better future to the people uprooted by Syria's conflict.This is a dramatic shift. As hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants have flooded into Europe this year, the governments of the EU countries have looked to be “scratching their heads” or "sticking their heads in the ground."While countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan have taken in as many as 4 million Syrian refugees, wealthier, more-developed countries in Europe, the Americas and Asia have pledged funds to keep the refugees right where they are, and these funds have been grossly insufficient to cover the need.But the reality of the conflict seems to have set in, and with it the bigger question of how the very real human crisis that has been created through four-and-a-half years of civil war is to be handled humanely.I spent several months in Turkey this summer; saw the refugees living in the cities and begging on streets; visited camps along the Syrian border where children sat outside tents in the 100-degree heat of the desert with little to do but bicker.Many of the families I met were from Kobanê, the hometown of little Alan’s family, which made headlines early this year when U.S. aerial strikes helped to rout the Islamic State (IS) group from the town. Kobanê was demolished in the fighting, and its residents fled to southern Turkey. And there many of them have stayed; unable to work, they wait. In the case of Kobanê, the town was being rebuilt, and refugees were beginning to return home, until IS members crossed the border from Turkey this summer making the town again unstable and creating a surge of second-time refugees.While Turkey has handled the crisis admirably, providing the bulk of financial aid independent of international organizations to house half of the refugees who have fled Syria to date, the situation is not sustainable. It is often barely livable.Even with the hard living conditions, what seems to be the greatest struggle for many refugees is the uncertainty - not knowing if or when they will ever be able to return home. What once was months of displacement has now turned into years; and whereas the focus of previous humanitarian efforts was temporary provision of needs, during a presumed short-term stay outside of Syria, it is becoming apparent that the need is now more permanent and long-term.While the goal of any aid-in-conflict program is for those who have been displaced to have the opportunity to return home, people cannot simply be left indefinitely in situations of uncertainty.And this is what is finally being addressed this week by the international community, and the nations who are willingly or unwillingly receiving refugees at their border gates.The global reaction to Alan Kurdî’s photo - on social media, in the press, and in the decision-making halls of governments - seems to have removed heads from the sand. The impact of the crisis has suddenly become quite personal as audiences around the world watched the indignity and inhumanity suffered by fleeing refugees, risking their lives on dangerous boat trips in the hopes of finding a new home.The devastating loss of thousands of Syria’s children - those who have survived are now being referred to as a “lost generation” - can no longer be ignored. Last week, we also saw young people attempting to squeeze through the wire fence built to keep them out on Hungary’s border with Serbia. We watched families stranded at a Budapest train station, with no idea of when they would be allowed to leave, stop waiting and start walking - with the goal of making it to Germany.The question which has been posed so many times throughout this crisis - how long are we going to wait and watch? - finally received the beginning of an answer:
- Germany offered immediate hospitality to 800,000 refugees, and to an additional 500,000 each year after that.
- France plans to take in 24,000 people fleeing conflict.
- The governments of the UK and US are debating how many more refugees they will be able to accept (at present the U.S. offers asylum to a mere 1,500 per year).
- And the EU finally rolled out a plan today for a regional strategy to address the growing numbers of refugees entering Europe.
Some are even beginning to question just why it is that the Gulf States - particularly Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates - have offered protection to zero refugees, despite their involvement as regional players in the conflict.At the grassroots level there have also been beautiful outpourings of hospitality, particularly in Germany and Austria. Campaigns to #welcomerefugees have filled soccer stadiums and social media. Citizens have offered their homes, volunteered to provide services to arriving refugees, and protested when their governments have failed to take action.Given the previously-slow pace of the world's response to Syrians, these acts of generosity have been extremely heartening. But beyond abating the immediate crisis, let us hope that this spark of compassion for the needs of those suffering from violent conflict will continue to grow and with it a deeper, more thoughtful consideration of how these crises can be handled with greater global responsibility. After all, our common humanness - that which allowed many of us to look at the photo of Alan Kurdî and not turn away - demands we accept that since we have a role in creating the world's conflicts, we also must play a part in resolving them.Perhaps what has been most poignant about this week’s events in addressing the refugee crisis has been the proof that when people stand together, their voices are heard, and they create change.As the mother of a young child, I do truly hope that we, as members of the global community, will continue to stand up and demand change.*Due to an original misspelling in Turkish press, Alan Kurdî's name has been widely printed as "Aylan" in western media coverage.