On Friday, I overheard two Sox fans headed to Fenway Park earnestly discussing refugees. They expressed sorrow over the image of Aylan Kurdi circulating on social media, and wished aloud they could do more to help. While more than 5,000 miles may separate Boston and Damascus, the heart of the Syrian refugee crisis, there are concrete steps people can take locally to have an impact on the lives of refugees. These actions may seem small when taken alone, but with concerted efforts by enough people, the inadequate humanitarian response that led to Aylan Kurdi's drowning can begin to change. Although the links to resources focus specifically on Boston, the same suggestions could be applied to cities throughout the United States. Resources and organizations like those listed below in different locations are a Google search away.
Arrange a donations drive. Aid organizations have called for donations of specific items such as clothing, blankets, and books for refugees. Not every item is needed, so be sure to check with the organization you want to work with about what sort of donations they need. Winter is an extremely dangerous time for many refugees living in substandard shelters, and clothing and bedding drives help refugees keep warm for the winter. Both local and global refugee agencies need items to help in their efforts.
- Donate. The importance of donations from individuals and organizations cannot be understated. The UNHCR, the largest humanitarian agency responding to refugee crises worldwide, currently requires an additional $3 billion to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis alone. That number seems insurmountable, but every donation, large or small, funds a textbook for a child, a meal for a family, or a roof over their heads. The UNHCR is the largest agency, but smaller organizations like the Norwegian Refugee Council, MercyCorps, or Save the Children are also in need of assistance, so learn about their work and decide where you think your dollars would be most effective. You can sponsor a refugee family locally as well, and should check with local refugee resettlement agencies about how to do so. You don't have to do it alone. Individuals can have large impacts when they fundraise. Running a marathon this year? Consider fundraising for refugees. Does your office hold a yearly charity drive or make an annual donation? Speak with your boss about making this year's charity a refugee agency. Organize or attend a bake sale, a charity dinner, a campus event, anything you can to pool your social network's resources to help. Cash donations have the most direct impact on refugees' lives today, and it's an easy way to help another human being.
Volunteer with a local refugee agency. Although many more should be welcomed, there are already millions of refugees living in the US and EU. Local refugee agencies welcome volunteers to aid with reception, resettlement, translation, English language instruction, job training, and more. In Boston, the Boston Center for Refugee Health and Human Rights regularly holds open houses for people who want to get involved. Their upcoming Fall Fete is an opportunity to meet Boston's frontline refugee responders and give your money to a good cause while having a great time.
Open your home. Many communities have created services for families and individuals to offer spare bedrooms for refugees. German citizens created Refugees Welcome in November 2014 to arrange for people with rooms available to host refugees, and the organization is helping people in 20 additional countries set up similar services. Boston has an interest survey open to gauge community interest in hosting refugees locally here. If you have a spare room, or even if you're just looking for a roommate (aid agencies will often find ways to fund the rent), consider opening your home to a refugee.
Organize in your community. People are more powerful when they act together. Join a refugee-supporting campus group, volunteer team, or religious organization, and work not just to organize donations and drives, but also to lobby political leaders. Remember that friend who's been posting articles about the refugee crisis? Reach out to see if they are already in a group or want to form one. Grassroots movements to advocate for better refugee policies and increased aid can be extremely effective, even if they start small. Start by joining a Solidarity Rally for Syrian Refugees on Saturday, Sept. 19 in Copley Square from 6:00-8:30 p.m.
Educate yourself and others. Misconceptions about refugees and other migrants create toxic political environments that stop anything from being done. Even British Prime Minister David Cameron displayed a crass lack of empathy when he referred to refugees trying to enter the UK as "swarms." Go beyond the sensationalist headlines and seek out voices from the refugees themselves. Read the beautiful and heartbreaking body of literature written by and about refugees, from non-fiction to novels to biographies to poetry. Speak with others about what you learn. If you hear a friend, family member, or coworker say something you think is offensive about migrants or refugees, speak up, and respectfully offer your perspective. The failure to see refugees and migrants as fellow human beings enables xenophobia. Only by actively engaging with the refugee experience and other citizens can opinions begin to change.
Bring attention to the issue. Social media has enabled ordinary people to more fully determine the topics of international conversation. The current upsurge of interest in refugees and migrants on social media should be sustained to let the media and governments know that their citizens will hold them accountable for their actions. Publications like the Sun and Daily Mail have played a disgraceful double game when it comes to migrants, alternatively stoking fears of a migrant takeover in Europe and declaring Aylan Kurdi's death a tragedy. Politicians have played off of xenophobic fears of migrants in many Western countries. People on social media call out this hypocrisy and should continue to do so when it comes to politicians and reporters more interested in pursuing a narrow-minded agenda than actually addressing the crisis.
Make your voice heard. Social media won't go far enough to convince others that action is needed. Bring up the conversation with people you know to raise awareness about the crisis. Chances are, they've seen at least part of the story on social media, and will want to offer their opinions, too. National conversations start with personal interactions, and the more people care about finding humane solutions to refugee resettlement, the more likely it is that policies will change.
Stay engaged. Remember the refugee crisis in the United States last year when 70,000 Central American refugees, many of them children, arrived on our southern border? Do you know what happened to them? Some remain in detention centers in the US, held apart from their families and stuck in a cruelly slow legal system, but they largely have been deported back to the countries they fled for fear of their lives. Stop the current focus on the crisis from becoming one more momentary controversy that is soon pushed from the conversation. Get engaged, and stay engaged. And by the way, you can still help the Central American refugees still trapped in the US detention system.
Write, call, tweet your representatives. People can no longer afford to only rely upon their slow-moving governments to respond to the refugee crisis, but only governments have the massive amount of resources necessary to turn the corner towards a more humane, equitable, and sensible international refugee response. Look up your local representative here to ask what your government is doing about refugees in your community. Find your congressperson here to demand that the US increase its quota for refugees and expedite the visa process so the sluggish current rate of approval does not continue.
The above actions are largely local, because individuals can have the most direct impact where they live. But the countries hosting the vast majority of the world's refugees lack the resources necessary to sustain the frontline refugee response, and they are in desperate need of more support from the international community. Throughout the Syrian refugee crisis, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq have taken in over 3.9 million people, as opposed to 348,000 who have applied for asylum in European countries and under 1,500 in the US. They are struggling to maintain their economies and societies in the face of so much need, and the migration crisis in the West is fueled by the lack of support for host countries in the region.
My first suggestion remains my strongest: donate to the UNHCR today to help them support the generous refugee host societies worldwide who are bearing the brunt of this crisis. Every single person can have a positive impact on the way this crisis is handled. The unprecedented number of people fleeing their homes due to conflict, climate, and poverty requires an equally unprecedented global response, starting at the local level with you.