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The Refugee Crisis Isn't About Refugees - Its About Us

There are more than 65 million persons displaced worldwide – more than at any time since World War II. To get a sense of the scale of displacement, and the stories of individuals and families behind the numbers, I highly recommend Ai WeiWei’s Documentary “The Human Flow“. Using drone footage, interviews, and still shots Wei Wei reminds us that every refugee and migrant is a human being with a story.

In a related article in the Guardian, WeiWei states “The Refugee Crisis Isn’t About Refugees – It’s About Us“. In other words, it is about who we are and what we do. Many of us, including WeiWei and everyone in the United States who is not a Native American, has a migration or refugee story. In addition, many of us practice religions that have been shaped by displacement. Jesus Christ’s parents fled for their safety and were told there was no room for them – much as an increasing number of countries tell refugees and migrants that they are not wanted. Were Jesus born today, it might very well have been in a camp for refugees and migrants in Greece or within a conflict-affected country like Syria or Iraq. According to Judaism, Moses and the Israelites wandered the desert for forty years before reaching the promised land. During World War II, Jews, Roma, and other minorities were subjected to atrocities on an industrial scale. Those who could fled and started new lives in new countries. Just as Europe was torn apart by World War II, a number of majority Muslim countries in the Middle East have been torn apart by conflict. Countries neighboring Syria host large numbers of Syrian, Palestinian, and/or Iraqi refugees. Persecuted for their religion and subjected to violence, Mormons were also pushed west until they could live in peace in Utah. The Dalai Lama, perhaps the most famous refugee in the world, may not be able to return to Tibet before he dies.

There are refugees around the world who have spent decades living in camps and cities in other countries waiting for a solution – going home safely and voluntarily, integrating fully where they are, or being resettled to another country. Christian, Jewish and Mormon groups have long been supportive of protecting and assisting refugees – including by advocating for refugees to be resettled to Canada, the United States, and other countries but they are not alone. Governments, volunteers, refugees who are already integrated, and community groups like Rotary Clubs play an important role in helping refugees start new lives based on our common humanity. In Canada, which has a private sponsorship model, Rotarians worked together to bring two refugee families to Nova Scotia and helped them integrate into new communities. You can read the article, entitled “8,000 Kilometers to Peace” here. Less than one percent of all refugees worldwide will ever be resettled – and that’s much more the case now that the United States, traditionally the largest resettlement country worldwide, has cut new arrivals to a trickle.

Who we are is also what we allow our governments to do. Many of us live in countries where the foreign policies of our governments are causing displacement. We should take that into account when we vote and engage our elected officials on humanitarian issues regularly. In order to do that effectively, we need to educate ourselves about displacement and broader human rights issues. To know more, check out Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, IRIN News and websites of major humanitarian responders such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Each has Twitter and Facebook feeds. The Economist, the Guardian, and Al Jazeera regularly cover humanitarian issues as well.

In addition to the Human Flow, there are a number of good documentaries about refugees and other conflict-affected populations such as God Grew Tired of Us, Fire at Sea, Salam Neighbour, Chasing Asylum, the Defector, and The Lost Boys of Sudan. Dramas that address the impact of conflict on civilians, and especially women and children, include Hotel Rwanda, Beasts of No Nation, In the Land of Blood and Honey, Refuge, Rain in a Dry Land, amongst others.

If you’ve ever lived in a country other than your own, tried to learn a new language, adjusted to a way of life much different than your own, then you already have empathy for some of the challenges that refugees and migrants face. In our own communities, there are likely to be people in need of support. Part of who we are is how we welcome people with different backgrounds than our own. None of us are immune to displacement by disaster and conflict – we should treat others as we would want to be treated if we found ourselves in a similar situation. When you have an opportunity to do so, reach out to someone – be a good friend and neighbor. If you belong to Rotary, or another organization like it, consider partnering with local organizations supporting refugees or vulnerable migrants. For example, My Rotary Club works with an organization in Washington DC that provides support to LGBTI asylum seekers – mostly from Africa and the Near East.

The number and severity of conflicts around the world can be overwhelming. None of us can do everything, but we can all do something, we can all do one thing, to make the world a little less cruel. If you have experiences you would like to share about working with refugees, migrants, or other vulnerable populations I’d like to hear them. Please contact me at

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