Americans want to help refugees…

At a panel discussion on the global migration crisis held last week at Washington, DC’s Newseum, many of the questions from the audience requested practical guidance on how we Americans can help with resettlement. The panelists were less than totally able to answer these questions satisfactorily, a fact that captures at some level the vague cloud that surrounds the US refugee resettlement system. Indeed, an individual who has spearheaded refugee resettlement in New Haven, Connecticut, said in a forum several weeks earlier, run by the Episcopal Church, that when he launched his program, the US State Department advised him to operate “under the radar.” The authorities, it seems, fear that Americans who hear about refugees will be more inclined to push back against their arrival rather than roll up their sleeves to help.

A first step in changing this, according to the global charity Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), is to get the word out about the actual situation of refugees and displaced people worldwide. MSF devoted the past week to informing the people of Washington, DC about the realities of global migration. Timed tickets were available free of charge for a guided tour through an outdoor exhibit on the National Mall, close to the Washington Monument, where we were helped to understand through a number of hands-on re-enactments what it is like to be a refugee or displaced person.

My guide was a nurse from Connecticut in her sixties who has worked for MSF in South Sudan, Burundi and Tanzania and Afghanistan over the past fifteen years. She told us each to select items that we would take in an emergency evacuation. The options were pictured on laminated cards that we could carry with us on the tour. At each stage along our “journey” we were forced to choose one of the items we were carrying to give up for lack of space or sell in order to pay our way on the next stage of the journey. My five items were passport, family photos, medications, baby’s bottle, and water. The item I kept the longest was my passport. A number of my fellow travelers made the same choice. I have no idea whether this was a wise choice. My sense of randomness about it probably replicates the sense of randomness that overshadows most refugees as they try to make good choices hour by hour.

On our tour, we found ourselves in an inflated raft, squeezed closely so that twenty of us could just fit as we sat on the raised edges. Such a boat, we were told, would carry as many as sixty people from Libya or Turkey to Europe. Then we were shown a rudimentary refugee camp, including a latrine, the method by which people wash their hands after using the latrine in a place of water scarcity, and packets of dry peanut butter that can be easily distributed to nourish large numbers on the brink of starvation. In the next tent, a kind of clinic run by MSF, we saw how measles vaccines are kept cold without electricity and we viewed an efficient new malaria test instrument that can be administered to thousands in a single day. We learned the importance of cell phones – essential items for maintaining communication between scattered family members.

I learned that one of the main preoccupations of communities receiving refugees is how to ensure that refugee camps not become permanent dwelling places, in the way that the Palestinian camps have in Southern Lebanon and on the West Bank. Lebanon has not allowed official “camps” for Syrian refugees, so the 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon (now comprising one fifth of Lebanon’s population) are informally camped out in the Bekaa Valley, or renting patches of land closer to cities. The positive aspect of this approach is that the refugees become more integrated in the local economy, and Lebanese as well as refugees gain from the UN aid for the building of infrastructure. But 40 per cent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in temporary accommodation including garages, shacks and informal camps. They have little protection against the cold.

Deborah Amos of National Public Radio, who has recently taken up US refugee resettlement as her new “beat,” spoke at the Newseum of the dilemmas facing reporters who are getting the refugee story out. It is hard to find new things to say about a story that seems much the same from day to day. The goal is to humanize the situation, not get caught up in statistics. “You want to tell small stories rather than big stories.” You can focus on the tragedy, or you can focus on resilience. You can focus on the welcome offered from various countries, but you also describe countries that move from feeling welcoming to feeling threatened.

Most refugees are skilled people, middle class people, who expect to find places where they can charge their cell phones and use ATM cards. Instead of malnutrition, the diseases seen among refugees coming into Europe are chronic diseases, such as heart conditions. Today’s refugees prefer not to stay in camps: conflicts today are lasting longer than they used to, so refugees know they are not well advised to assume that they will get home soon.

And yet refugees resist becoming assimilated in their place of arrival, surely a sign that they have not given up the possibility of getting home one day. A matter for huge concern is that half of global refugees are children and two thirds of those children are not being educated, a situation that bodes ill for the future, and yet  Syrian refugees in Turkey resist sending their children to Turkish schools. They want their children to be taught in Arabic, not in Turkish. Initially some Arabic language schools for Syrians in Turkey were financed by the Arabic speaking diaspora, but over time these groups have run out of money.  One theory about why there was a surge in refugees from Turkey into Europe in fall 2015 is that the closure of these schools caused Syrian families to decide that Europe was the only place they would be willing to have their children educated.