Thursday morning I woke to the sound of a message hitting my phone. My co-founder at Torchlight Legal had forwarded a text from another friend: “Let me know what I can do to help with Torchlight. The Syrian boy has broken my heart.”
I recognized the original sender as someone he’d talked to about supporting our work improving access to legal counsel and other resources for asylum-seekers.
Slightly puzzled, I googled “Syrian boy”. Still in pajamas and curled up under my down comforter, I was shoved out of the lingering haze of sleep by the images that have awakened so much of the world to a huge part of the global refugee crisis.
There are currently 60 million refugees and displaced persons in the world, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). More than half of these individuals are children.
Globally, one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum*. If this were the population of a country, it would be the world’s 24th biggest (around the same population as the UK). Every day, an average of 42,500 people are added to that total.
Because my work centers on assisting asylum-seekers, the numbers are not exactly new to me, nor, sadly, is the reality that children die every day seeking refuge. But, every time I read the numbers or see the stories, I have to fight against this ache in the pit of my stomach and hold back tears. It makes me sick and sad and angry.
I’m grateful that people are choosing to finally see at least a part the immense suffering that surrounds us. I am deeply touched by stories of European families who have pledged to open their homes to those who survived the long journey across a sea and a continent. I’m inspired by folks sending donations to our own efforts at Torchlight and so many other great organizations who are working to relieve the suffering of those forced to flee their homes.
But, as an American and immigrant rights advocate, there is also a part of me that is angry and frustrated. The Syrian civil war is by far one of the largest contributors to this global refugee crisis. It is worthy of the attention it is receiving. But, the new-found compassion I see in my news feed betrays the blind eye so many have turned before today.
Every year hundreds of thousands of individuals seek asylum in the US. Some arrive as part of the UN resettlement efforts and have access to a host of resources to aid in that process.
Many others arrive at the border, penniless and afraid. Mothers, children, families who have already endured trauma, violence, oppression and fear, not to
mention a long and terrifying journey that often entails the same types of terrors that forced them to leave the homes in the first place, stand at the gates of the literal fence we have built to “protect ourselves” and beg for us to live up to the creed inscribed at the feet of our so-called Lady Liberty. Our response, thus far, has been expedited removal, family detention, and silent complicity.
But, so many of us have and continue to look away. We look away from refugees on our own doorsteps just like we look away from state-sanctioned violence against communities of color. We look away from systemic poverty. We look away from domestic violence. We look away from the inhumane treatment of undocumented immigrants. We look away from mass incarceration. We look away so that we don’t have to feel sad or guilty or afraid. I know we look away because if we didn’t, we would have discovered babies dying on beaches or along boarders a long, long time ago.
My mantra in my life and work has become, “See global. Act local.” If you, as the friend who messaged us last Thursday morning, have been struck by the image of a lifeless child on a Turkish beach or by the stories and conversations that have followed, good. See the global. Understand the conflict in Syria, and then learn about what is also driving refugees from Africa, Southeast Asia, Mexico, Central America, and so many other parts of the world. Seek to understand how these realities reflect systems of oppression and exploitation that echo other social justice and humanitarian issues closer to home like racial oppression, xenophobia, labor exploitation, mass incarceration, and human trafficking.
Then, look up and look around. Those realities are closer that many of us want to believe. As you begin to see them, and as you lean in to the discomfort that will inevitably accompany this process, find a place where you feel called to help.
Yes, I’d love it if some of you felt compelled to support our work at Torchlight Legal with donations or volunteer hours, but I’ll be equally overjoyed to hear that you started volunteering at you local Internal Rescue Committee office or that you donated to support legal defense of #BlackLivesMatter and other social justice advocates or showed up to a demonstration, or collected donations to help homeless LGBT youth, or helped pay for an undocumented family to get a consultation with an immigration attorney, or offered that basement rental apartment for a few weeks to a family facing a financial crisis or fleeing domestic violence, or volunteer at a low-income school even if you don’t have children attending.
[And please post other great organizations and opportunities in the comments, especially ones that have helped you see people and problems you once looked away from.]
You will, inevitably, discover the challenges of doing good. You might find that your first instinct isn’t as helpful as you hoped or believed. You might find that, some days, you go home and cry about what you witnessed. That’s ok. Comfort is not the goal, compassion and community is.
So, keep seeing. Keep doing. I promise, it will ensure that a lot fewer babies die hoping for a better life.