Imagine witnessing your husband being beaten bloody in front of you and your children. A few nights later, you’re shaken awake by a loud explosion. You cough your way through the dust-filled air to the bedroom where your youngest child sleeps. There, you find her shattered body under a pile of rubble.
Imagine your children survived a bombardment, but one had a third of her jaw blown off in the blast. She gets medical help before the last hospital is leveled. There are no painkillers left. No antibiotics.
These are real stories from families living through the hell of Syria’s civil war.
Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, had a prewar population of 2.3 million, about the same as the city of Chicago. I lived near Chicago for 12 years. When I see photos of the devastation in Aleppo and try to imagine Chicago under the same circumstances, my heart just shatters.
And that’s just one city. The scope of the crisis in Syria is beyond comprehension. 13.5 million people inside Syria are in need of humanitarian aid, 6.5 million are internally displaced, and 4.5 million are displaced outside of Syria.
Those 4.5 million are the refugees our citizens and politicians have debated helping. Here’s what you need to know about our fellow human beings from halfway around the world:
1. The Syrian war has created the biggest humanitarian crisis since WWII.
Bigger than the AIDS epidemic or the Ethiopian famine. Bigger than Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami of 2004, or the Haiti earthquake of 2010. Half the population of Syria — 11 million people — have been killed or forced to flee. Eleven. Million. People. The numbers are staggering, and the stories are horrifying. We’ve never seen anything like this in our lifetime.
2. Surrounding Muslim countries have taken in the vast majority of refugees.
Turkey alone has taken in 2.5 million. In Lebanon, 1 in 5 people is a Syrian refugee. Ten percent of Jordan’s current population are Syrian refugees. About 1 million have requested asylum in Europe, and hundreds of thousands have been taken in.
The United States has welcomed 10,000 in 2016, or .002% of the 4.5 million Syrians seeking refuge.
3. Most Syrian refugees coming to the United States are women and children.
Despite misleading reports from some conservative media outlets, the vast majority of Syrian refugees referred to the United States by the United Nations are, in fact, women and children — 78% according to the State Department. We are helping save families.
4. The vetting process for refugees is more thorough than for any other kind of traveler to the United States.
The process to become a refugee in America, which involves multiple steps and security clearance, takes up to two years. After resettlement, there are further recurring security checks as well. If there is any doubt about the risk of an individual, he or she is not admitted. The United States’ process balances compassion with reasonable caution. There is a much greater risk posted by an average tourist from Europe.
5. Thousands of Syrian children are separated from their parents.
One of the most heartbreaking aspects of this crisis is the children who have lost one or both of their parents. Thousands of kids have found themselves without their caregivers. Lone children are vulnerable to trafficking and abuse — as if they haven’t already been through enough.
6. Children born in refugee camps are in danger of being “stateless.”
One thing I’d never thought of until I began this research is that babies of the displaced often have no documentation. Out of 4.5 million people, some are obviously going to be pregnant. Depending on where they are, getting birth certificates or other necessary documentation to be able to travel — or even to return to their home country someday — is a huge challenge. It’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of children may be lacking proper documentation and have no legal citizenship in any country. Being stateless can open them up to a lifetime of bureaucratic hurdles at best and leave them vulnerable to trafficking and abuse at worst.
7. We can help in several ways.
If you want to make a donation to help refugees and make sure your money is going to a reputable organization, check out this list from Charity Navigator. Friends who have volunteered with refugees tell me that smaller NGOs (non-governmental organizations) frequently have less red tape and are able to get needed supplies to people most efficiently.
You can look for Syrian families in your area through local refugee resettlement agencies or find volunteer opportunities through larger organizations such as the International Rescue Committee. Find refugees to befriend and help assimilate. Welcome them with kindness and hospitality.
It’s also imperative we let members of Congress know that we refuse to stand by and allow millions of families to be torn apart and suffer the fallout of a war they didn’t choose to be a part of. Let Congress know that we have 20,000 cities and towns in the United States, and we can easily accommodate more than the 10,000 Syrian refugees we took in this year. Mercy Corps has a sample letter you can send here. And here’s where you can find a list of your representatives.
We can’t let fear keep us from doing the right thing. Refugees are not the people perpetuating horror and extremism and terrorism; they’re the ones fleeing it. Syria was one of the safest places in the Middle East before this all started. People lived their lives, went to work, and worshipped in beautiful churches and mosques much older than our country. Tourists flocked to Damascus for its history and natural beauty. The decimation of that country is unprecedented, the destruction of centuries-old architecture is a tragic loss for humanity, and the cost in dollars and lives is unfathomable.
But the most pressing tragedy right now is the millions of people who have lost their homes, their friends and family members, and their security — and are just struggling to survive. If we can’t bring ourselves to open our hearts and doors to those suffering massive-scale atrocities, where is our humanity?