Refugee count reaches unprecedented 60 million

Syrian refugees walk the street at Zaatari refugee camp near Mafraq, Jordan, March 14. Jordan officials report international aid continues to fall short of what the country needs to host 1.4 million Syrian refugees. (CNS photo / Jamal Nasrallah, EPA)

What does peace look like to you?

The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur shared an Independent Catholic News story about Christian Peacemaker Team members visiting Syrian refugees in northern Iraq, where they got to see how Syrian refugee children answer the question.

“Their cheerful faces belied any suffering that they had endured,” the story says. “Several were wearing school uniforms they may have worn when they were students in Syria. They eagerly participated in the program, in many ways demonstrating the resilience of children.”

When they asked the children what peace looks like to them, their answers were profound in their simplicity:

  • Peace looks like me sitting with my family.
  • Peace looks like being able to talk on the telephone to relatives who live in nearby towns.
  • Peace looks like safety, no police knocks.
  • Peace looks like kind words.
  • Peace looks like a circle, people holding hands.
  • Peace looks like bringing flowers after an argument.
  • Peace looks like riding a bicycle free and unafraid.

Some say achieving that kind of peace is just as simple – if everyone involved actually wants peace.

A thousand words at a time

Though many Syrians have found refuge in Iraq, many Iraqis have had to find refuge themselves, thanks to Islamic State militants.

Caritas has a collection of photos by Chris de Bode marking the anniversary of the fall of Mosul, all of which are beautiful and some of which are absolutely striking.

The collection quotes Pope Francis’ prayer for the region during his Easter Message:

“We ask for peace, above all, for Syria and Iraq, that the roar of arms may cease and that peaceful relations be restored among the various groups which make up those beloved countries.”

Amen.

Finding – and fighting – the cause of violence

The Jesuit Refugee Service reported in April on an outbreak of xenophobic violence in South Africa, where migrants from Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Burundi were attacked and had shops looted, displacing 2,500 people.

“In a country of 50 million people with high unemployment rates, perpetrators of the violence accuse the two million migrants of taking the jobs from South Africans,” JRS reported.

But of course, the Jesuits were not content to simply report on and condemn the violence. They also wanted to examine and illuminate the causes of the violence.

Yes, economic factors do cause migration, JRS says, but equally important is conflict. And ignorance of that fact, they say, is what leads to fear and hatred. By countering ignorance with the truth, the violence can be stopped at its root.

“Many people, especially the perpetrators of the recent xenophobic violence, do not understand the plight of those who seek refuge within their borders,” JRS says. “In pushing forward, part of our mission is to share our knowledge, helping create social cohesion based on understanding, which is so desperately needed.”

In an effort to spread understanding, JRS shares the story of two refugees from Somalia.

"As the militia advance, they will come in and live in your house and tell you to leave. If you don't, they will kill you and your family," explains Ali-Ismail Qamar.

More people than ever living have been forced from home

The Washington Post was among a number of media outlets reporting on the latest numbers from the United Nations. The Office of the U.N. High ­Commissioner for Refugees follows global trends in displacement marked that the number of people who are living in other countries or are internally displaced in their own countries has surged to an unprecedented 60 million:

The number of people uprooted from their homes by war and persecution in 2014 was larger than in any year since detailed record-keeping began, according to a comprehensive report released early Thursday by the U.N. refugee agency that will add to the evidence of a global exodus unlike any in modern times.

Just a year after the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and people forced to flee within their own countries surpassed 50 million for the first time since World War II, it surged to nearly 60 million in 2014 – “a nation of the displaced” that is roughly equal to the population of the United Kingdom.

The rapidly escalating figures reflect a world of renewed conflict, with wars in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe driving families and individuals from their homes in desperate flights for safety. But the systems for managing those flows are breaking down, with countries and aid agencies unable to handle the strain as an average of nearly 45,000 people a day join the ranks of those either on the move or stranded far from home.

This number does not include people displaced by natural disasters or who have migrated to look for jobs or a better life.

Bringing hope to the hopeless

One of my favorite things about covering Catholic women religious is that they are relentlessly hopeful. After two decades in journalism, where it seems you’re constantly confronted with the worst humans have to offer, to work on a daily basis with women who always find hope in whatever situation they’re faced with is not just refreshing, but actually healing.

Today my dose of hope comes from the appropriately named Dominican Sisters of Hope, who tell the story of Srs. Debbie Blow and Patricia Jelly.

As the Executive Director of the North Country Mission of Hope, which fosters hope and empowers relationships with the people of Nicaragua, Blow has led 57 trips to Nicaragua over the past 16 years. Jelly is a community organizer for the Statewide Education Organizing Committee for New Jersey, a not-for-profit that seeks to assure that parents, guardians and other interested residents are an integral part of improving children’s education.

Both have been examining the refugee crisis at the United States’ southern border, where thousands of people from Central America have fled violence in their homeland to seek asylum here.

While it seems there is rarely any good news about the situation, Blow and Jelly say there is always hope – hope that the causes of the violence they’re fleeing will be addressed, hope that the refugees will be accepted and able to build new lives, and hope that we can all see ourselves as brothers and sisters. Hope means viewing the children at the border as human recipients of mercy, the sisters say.

“We see all these signs on TV about [child migrants] being illegals or aliens,” Blow said. “The way we infuse hope into this is to look at these children as refugees seeking shelter.”

Of course, hope can also be a challenge:

“If this were your child,” she asked, “how would you want your child cared for?”

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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. Follow him on Twitter @DanStockman or on Facebook.]

Check out the latest from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious 2018.