It took the death of a 3-year-old Syrian refugee, whose body was discovered on a Turkish beach Sept. 2, to shock world leaders out of their complacency and begin taking serious steps to assist thousands of families fleeing war and persecution.
Aylan Kurdi died when the boat his family boarded, in hopes of reaching the Greek island of Kos en route to western Europe, sank near the Turkish town of Bodrum. Also perishing were Aylan’s mother and 5-year-old brother. Their deaths would have been a mere footnote in the Syrian catastrophe had Aylan’s small, lifeless body not been photographed on the beach in Turkey and transmitted across news and social media sites worldwide.
Syria’s civil war, combined with the rise of the Islamic terrorist group ISIS, has led to a continuous flow of Syrian Christians and Muslims escaping persecution and death. The situation has been called the worst humanitarian disaster in recent memory. According to the International Rescue Committee, 4 million Syrians have escaped to neighboring countries in the past five years.
Refugees from other Mideast countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq, have compounded the humanitarian nightmare. Smugglers and human traffickers, seeking to capitalize off of the situation, are also responsible for countless deaths of people wanting only to provide for their families.
Catholic Relief Services reported that in July alone, Europe took in more than 107,000 refugees, most of whom traveled through Greece, Macedonia and Serbia. CRS said that 80 percent of these refugees are from Syria.
In 1951, the United Nations adopted a “Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.” This U.N. convention, updated in 1967, outlines a number of rights refugees should be guaranteed. Among those rights:
- The right not to be expelled, except under certain, strictly-defined conditions;
- The right not to be punished for illegal entry into the territory of a contracting state;
- The right to work, to housing, to education, to public assistance;
- The right to freedom of movement within the territory.
The U.N. document’s protection of refugees was a result of the uprooting of millions of people throughout Europe after World War I and again in World War II. The document’s goals are as important today as they were after World War II.
Pope Francis is also challenging Christians and other people of good will to take a personal stand on the refugee crisis. On Sept. 6, he called on dioceses in Europe to open their doors to refugee families. He also announced that the Vatican would take in two families of refugees.
What can we do to assist the refugees from Syria? Fewer than 2,000 Syrian refugees have been welcomed to the U.S. The International Rescue Committee (rescue.org) asks U.S. citizens to sign its online petition asking government leaders to accept more refugees.
We can also ask elected leaders to expand humanitarian assistance to refugees and we can provide donations to relief organizations working directly with Syrian refugees.
Catholic Relief Services (CRS.org) has been assisting Syrian refugees for several years. Make an online donation to assist their refugee relief. Finally, we can offer prayers for refugees. The following is offered by CRS:
Lord, protect all refugees in their travels. May they find a friend in me. Make me worthy of the refuge I have found in you.