Making a difference in life-or-death matters

A Syrian refugee from Aleppo holds his 1-month-old daughter moments after arriving Sept. 3 on a boat on the Greek island of Lesbos. (CNS/Reuters/Dimitris Michalakis)

Sometimes it's the dropping of an almost casual reference that really brings something home to you.

That's what happened when I read Ana Zivkovic's Friday blog for Caritas. Zivkovic is a communication officer for Caritas Serbia, where the Catholic aid organization is serving the thousands of refugees trying to reach a better life in western Europe.

The blog is about the coming of winter and how it will affect the refugees, but it was a small passage at the end that made the rest of the item so moving.

"It moves me a lot when I see so many people with small children travelling such a long way under such hard conditions because it is not like a trip where people enter one bus and travel for 30 hours to reach their destination," she wrote.

Immediately, I flashed back to all the times we've traveled with our children, now 9 and 10. Even though — thank God — we've never had to spend 30 hours on a bus (though six hours in a minivan can sometimes feel that way), traveling can still be a real ordeal, and was much more so when they were younger.

There was all the planning and packing required. The figuring out of meals, diaper stops, not forgetting that one beat-up, chewed-on toy they simply must have. The finding of activities to keep them occupied. The desperate search for a bathroom in the middle of nowhere. The expense. The dog getting carsick.

There was also the fear we felt when we flew with them for the first time. Almost everyone knows how awful it is to be crammed into a plane near someone with an out-of-control child, and we prayed and begged we would not be the couple with that child — or even worse, two of them.

All of that came rushing back to me and seemed so minor, so trivial, so "first-world problem" as I contemplated traveling for months with small children carrying only a backpack, leaving everything — possessions, friends, lives — behind. I can't imagine trying to take any child, let alone an infant or toddler, on that kind of journey except in very fear of our lives.

And then imagine being halfway along the journey and being turned away. Being told you are refuse and should simply go away.

Zivkovic reports:

"When it's raining, it's so hard to see these people wet and hungry," said Milica Ocokoljic, a Caritas field officer from Presevo. "I met one young family from Syria, the father is 34, the mother 27, they have 7 year old twin girls, a 4 year old son and triplets born on the 7th of September in Kavala — Greece, on their way here. Can you imagine giving birth to triplets on a journey like this."

"Lory is a 19 year old girl, a student of construction equipment and machinery. One of her brothers is a disabled person and he is transported in a wheelbarrow. Abdil Helim is a 21 year old young man from Syria. He heard that there are too many people heading to Germany and he was thinking to of trying to go to Sweden. He told me 'I only want to go somewhere me and my brother could study and have a normal life again.' "

Oh, and by the way, winter is coming.

In response, Caritas is going to supply 5,000 sleeping bags and raincoats for children. They're already giving out hygiene kits, food suitable for Muslim diets and drinking water, and they are helping with garbage problems and will expand operations once a government shelter to house 4,000 people is complete.

All of those mercies will be greatly welcome to those making this perilous journey — and perhaps even a reflection of the mercies the Holy Family must have received when they, too, were migrants from the Middle East fleeing for their lives, carrying a small child and hoping to find refuge in a faraway country.

Finding a new refuge

But there is good news, too. Among the many nations volunteering to accept refugees are some you may not have immediately thought of, including several in South America, U.S. News & World Report says:

Venezuela announced in September that it would accept 20,000 Syrians, while Chile said it would accept 50 Syrian families. Argentina and Uruguay also have installed programs to accept Syrians.

Brazil is home to more than 2,000 Syrians who fled their home, and since 2013 the country has granted refugee status to more than 7,000 asylum-seekers from Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Brazil's National Committee for Refugees said on Sept. 21 that it would offer a two-year visa extension to Syrians.

... In neighboring Argentina, the number of Syrians attempting to arrive is in the hundreds rather than thousands, but the numbers have been increasing.

The magazine says Argentina began a program a year ago that offers two-year asylum to Syrians fleeing the war and allows them to apply for citizenship if they have a stable job and residency.

Oklahoma pulls the plug

Just minutes before Richard Glossip was to be put to death Wednesday, he was granted a stay of execution when Oklahoma officials discovered they did not have the proper drugs for the procedure. The next day, KFOR reports, the state attorney general petitioned for an indefinite stay of all scheduled executions.

Oklahoma's protocol calls for using potassium chloride as the third drug in its executions, but officials discovered they instead had potassium acetate, used as a food preservative and sometimes as a de-icer.

The indefinite stay of all scheduled executions — Benjamin Cole is scheduled to be put to death Oct. 7, and John Grant was set to be executed Oct. 28 — will allow an investigation into what happened.

"Potassium acetate is a food preservative, but today it was a Richard Glossip preservative because he is still alive," said St. Joseph Sr. Helen Prejean, who is Glossip's spiritual adviser, according to NBC News.

A formula for all our lives

It's very easy to feel like you can't make a difference. So here's an example of how just one person can make a very big difference.

Ten years ago, Cortney Shepard was a student at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and was moved by the plight of starving children. So she started a team of USF students to coordinate volunteer events to raise money for infant formula, powdered milk, vitamins and requested food for the Dominican Republic. Since 2011, the group, called Formula For Life, has raised $150,000 in money and materials to help build a home for orphans at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Haiti.

The orphanage, now in rented space, has 19 girls and 12 boys. Two of the boys sleep on mattresses on the floor because the orphanage has run out of beds. The new orphanage, situated on 15 acres of land, will have room for 80 children. Once the orphanage builds a second story, it will have room for a total of 160 children. The Daughters of Mary sisters will eventually oversee the orphanage and run a school there, the News-Sentinel reports.

Every year, the group holds a 5K run and walk, and starting in 2014, it added a bike tour and race to raise money. (In the interest of full disclosure, my son and I have run that 5K twice, and my son wants you to know that he beat me this year.)

Team members rotate in and out as they enter and leave USF, but there is usually a core of only 10 to 15 students. But that hasn't stopped them from making a big difference — the new orphanage should be ready in June.

Not bad for a college student with a desire to help those in need.

Remember, links, tips and accounts of the response to any crisis anywhere in the world are always welcome at dstockman@ncronline.org.

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. His email address is dstockman@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter @DanStockman or on Facebook.]

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