Courageous Refugees, Cowardly Politicians

This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

I came to Europe this week to bear witness to the overwhelming numbers of children, women, and men searching for safety and a future far from the bombs that have devastated their homes in Syria. I joined the Nobel Women’s Initiative to meet with some of these courageous refugees and listened to their stories about why they undertook treacherous journeys to leave the country they love.

Little did we know that the shocking events in Paris and the subsequent rash of shameful responses would make our trip even more pressing. This is especially true back in my home country and native state of New Jersey, where Governor Chris Christie has said his state would not even admit a “5-year-old orphan” from Syria. These positions are known to many of the refugees I met far from the shores of the United States. I can’t explain such utter ignorance, but I tell them that these politicians don’t represent my values or those of many other Americans. I realize these words offer little comfort to offset the pain inflicted by vicious hate speech.

In the Serbian, Croatian, and Slovenian transit camps we visited, thousands of desperate families huddle while they hope for an end to their harrowing escape from the Syrian government’s barrel bombs and brutalities by the Islamic State (IS). I am horrified and ashamed to learn that seemingly overnight, a number of U.S. politicians are turning their backs on Syrian refugees. So far, about 30 governors and some members of U.S. Congress have asserted that Syrian refugees are not welcome. Even worse, some have disgracefully argued that we should apply religious tests to refugees seeking safety in the United States.

But from here it is clear that we must urgently increase, not decrease, refugee resettlement. At a time when these courageous individuals need the world’s protection the most, many politicians are using the Paris attacks for political gain, introducing hateful policies they don’t even have the authority to implement.

The attacks in Paris were horrific, and were clearly meant to terrify innocent civilians. Fear has unfortunately become the norm for most civilians in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s bombs have been raining down on their neighborhoods, ambulances, and hospitals for the last four and a half years. Despite all this, they have been rebuilding their hospitals and schools, they do their best to protect themselves from shelling by their own government, and try to resume life with some kind of normalcy.

Since early 2011, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has been documenting war crimes in Syria, including atrocities against hospitals and health professionals, the vast majority of which are being carried out by the Assad government. By the end of October of this year, there had been 329 attacks on health facilities in Syria and 687 health professionals had been killed – some by bombs that targeted their hospitals and ambulances, some shot to death. More than 157 were executed or tortured to death. In eastern Aleppo city alone, 95 percent of the doctors have fled, been detained, or killed. Just as with all terror campaigns, these shocking attacks target civilians in an overwhelming show of force and brutality. It is this relentless, systematic violence that is driving entire families to make the dangerous trip to Europe, forcing many to risk drowning.

What the Assad government is doing against its own people constitutes war crimes and crimes against humanity. Rather than providing a safe haven for those fleeing unbearable circumstances and bringing the perpetrators to justice, many politicians are fanning the flames of racist ideology.

The refugee crisis in Europe is driven by two elements: the unimaginable brutality of Assad’s regime and IS, and the failure of most governments to provide refugees with safe passage and a home. By forcing desperate people onto the so-called “migrant trail,” where they make dangerous crossings by sea, face gross exploitation by smugglers, and travel on foot through fields and cities seeking safety, we leave refugees at risk of death, illness, and violence. We help foster chaos and uncertainty instead of security and freedom.

We know that refugee processing is already one of the most arduous means of entry into the United States. There is no need for additional study or investigation of Syrian refugees, and claims to the contrary are meant to cause needless delay and obfuscation. What is required is a show of compassion and understanding, especially from a country of immigrants.

During my travels, I saw extraordinary examples of leadership among politicians and civil society. Despite being unprepared for the sudden surge of refugees flooding their borders, some governments – at least at the moment – are keeping their borders open, while scores of volunteers distribute donated food and basic supplies, and NGOs work around-the-clock to provide critical services.

Mean-spirited threats to bar Syrian refugees or Syrian Muslims from entering the United States are not only shameful, but ill-informed and damaging, and pander to the worst elements of American politics. True leaders do not take part in dangerous incitement and discrimination, but speak up against it and take steps to stop it.

Photo Credit: Igor Pavicevic for Nobel Women’s Initiative

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