As we prepare to celebrate the holiday season with family and friends, we customarily take stock of those things in our lives for which we are grateful.
Alas, this year, even as we count our blessings, we must also take note of what is happening beyond our borders. Today, a devastating war in Syria has left almost half a million Syrians dead and 4.8 million refugees desperate to find a safe haven. At a time when we reflect that America offered a future for those fleeing persecution in their home countries for a better life along strange shores, we must also think about those seeking refuge today.
In gratitude for the gifts of safety, human dignity and freedom we enjoy—and all those we might give and receive as Chanukah and Christmas approach—let us not forget the steady beat of misery that surrounds us as global citizens and consider what we can do for those who have nothing.
More than five years of war continue to rain unimaginable suffering on the Syrian people. One in two Syrians has been forced to flee their homes. The majority of those who fled Syria to Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan (nearly 5 million) live in dire conditions. Sadly, Syria’s children bear the heaviest burden, with the brutality and heartbreak of war defining their young lives. A third of Syria’s children, around 3.7 million, were born after the conflict started in 2011 and more than 50,000 children have been killed. In FY2016, 12,587 Syrian refugees—0.2% of the total number of UNHCR-registered Syrian refugees—were admitted to resettle in the U.S.
In the face of sheer statistics, it is too easy to forget the more human questions. Who are the Syrian refugees? Before the war, they lived lives like many of us—focused on school, careers, family and friends. For Syrians, the basic fabric of their daily lives is now utterly unrecognizable. Most have endured unbearable hardship of war. Some have been waiting for years to leave refugee camps to be given a chance to build a new life in a safe place.
In the face of a humanitarian crisis of such profound proportions, and in light of what potential America has to make a difference, we have surely not done enough. Our country, which holds faith at its core, has not hearkened to the call to conscience of our great faiths. When religions unite to speak with one voice, they have enormous mobilizing capacity, bringing moral authority, vast constituencies, extensive communication networks and the power of the pulpit. The upcoming Jewish and Christian holidays present perfect moments to seize this opportunity.
In the wake of terror attacks around the world, it is natural to be fearful and anxious. The U.S. should continue to ensure its security through the most rigorous refugee screening process in the world and by focusing on admitting the most vulnerable—including mothers, children, the elderly and survivors of torture.
But the U.S. must not give in to fear or bigotry. Indeed, allowing fear of the other to govern our politics would be turning our back on our nation’s fundamental commitment to protect the refugee and to stand up for human rights.
Virulent anti-refugee, anti-Muslim and xenophobic rhetoric can be felt all over the country. It stems not only from extremist movements surely. Xenophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry that stoke public fears of newcomers undergird federal and state efforts to bar Syrian refugee entrance and impose new strictures upon admission. The power of the multifaith collective—and that of all Americans who support the civil rights and civil liberties framework upon which our country was built—can help combat this debilitating rhetoric and counterproductive public policy.
Now is precisely the time for bold American leadership. Next year, we hope the U.S. will admit significantly more refugees. We pledge to join hands with communities around the U.S. to welcome them, as our nation has since our founding.
Still, Americans must not only open our doors wider to Syrian war victims, but also we can open our hearts and homes to those fleeing theirs. Make this holiday season more than just a gathering of family and friends by inviting a newly resettled refugee family to your home. Offer gifts not just to those you know but to the stranger who has none. Donate diapers, books and blankets. Urge your elected officials to support refugee resettlement and assistance.
Now is the time for Americans to lead by example. Tell the President, Congress and your governors and state legislators that our ideals compel us to welcome all victims of persecution, regardless of their faith.
It serves us well to remember that we are a country of refugees and a nation of immigrants. There is no better time to honor the legacy of welcoming the stranger than during this time of sharing and giving.