Last week Angelina Jolie published an op-ed in the NY Times detailing the plight of refugees. She outlined the facts including that most refugees are vulnerable women and children, and that statistics show that only 1% of the 65 million displaced people worldwide will achieve resettlement in another country. She explained that prior to the travel ban there was already an extensive and lengthy vetting system in the US for refugees, who go through more background checks and screening than any other visitors. Jolie can write so eloquently about these issues because she’s a special envoy to the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, she’s visited countless camps and she’s done advocacy and humanitarian work for the UN over 15 years. What about celebrities that are just starting to get involved with these issues? Ben Stiller has been involved with UNHCR since early 2016, when he visited refugee families resettled in Berlin. Late last month he visited the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan and has published a first person essay for Time Magazine about his experiences and the people he met there. I have to say that he sounds humbled by what he learned and that he truly wants to help. We do too, that’s why we’re reporting this.
Like a lot of us, I am trying to reconcile how to be open-hearted and empathetic to the plight of our fellow human beings while also being concerned about our national security. The problem is complicated, and sometimes the easiest way to deal with it, which I have personally been guilty of, is to ignore it. We become anesthetized to the constant news of suffering children in Aleppo and horrific violence and destruction in the region. How do we help those in need in a way that makes a difference and doesn’t compromise our safety here and abroad?
I, Ben Stiller, star of Dodgeball, do not have the answer. But by meeting with refugees and those assisting them, I was able to get a better sense of some of the realities.
This was the running theme at Azraq Camp, which sits in the middle of the Jordanian desert. Approximately 54,000 of the 655,000 registered refugees in Jordan from Syria are here. Over half are children. They live in small, anonymous shelters with no electricity (though the solar grid comes online soon), no running water and dirt floors.
This is where I talked to Mohamed and Alaa Salah and their two children. Mohamed is a veterinarian; Alaa, an agricultural engineer. They are both young and vivacious. They fled the carnage when bombs hit their neighborhood in Homs and the trauma damaged their 4-year-old son Hussain’s vision. They are grateful for safety, but stunned by their plight. “I miss my family so much,” Alaa said. “But right now I can’t take my children back to death…”
Every family I met shared a pride for their home country and the hope to live a normal life. While a few were ready to move on to wherever the resettlement process might take them, all professed a profound desire to eventually return home. These are sentiments we — the public — can all connect with. UNHCR’s #WithRefugees campaign is one way in which communities can reflect their compassion.
I hope the new Trump Administration will conclude that compassion and security are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they are mutually reinforcing. The roots of the Syria refugee problems are complicated, and so are the solutions. While a resolution of the conflict should be a priority, we must support the humanitarian programs of UNHCR. We need to support our allies like Jordan, who, with an astonishing 20 percent of their population made up of fleeing Syrians, cannot carry the burden alone. What countries like Jordan do profoundly affects us.
In this time of unrest in the Middle East and change in our country, when frustration and xenophobia seem to dominate our news cycle and social media, I hope we can all look at the faces of those we fear and see what is sometimes hardest of all to recognize: ourselves.
I don’t understand how anyone could see the videos of mothers in Aleppo crying for their children who have been murdered, or see the little orphan children shellshocked and looking confused, and not want to help. Those are families and children and people just like us. They’ve gone through hell and they don’t have a place to live or basic necessities. We need to not only lift the Muslim ban, we need to accept and help refugees from war torn countries. As Stiller writes, it’s actually safer to help refugees and people in crisis than to turn them away. You can donate to the UNHCR here and the International Rescue Community here.
Photos credit: UNHCR