This year, Peace Action New York State has been focused on building strong student chapters. They have been doing a great job. Judy Bello has had several opportunities to meet these young people who just might be the next generation of dedicated activists. In September Judy was invited to speak by the Western New York Peace Center at Canisius College in Buffalo. The subject was the war in Syria, a tough one for most Americans to wrap their minds around. Later she was invited by Peace Action, New York State (PANYS) to give some background on the recent flood of refugees fleeing into Europe, first at Hobart William Smith in Geneva and just this week at SUNY Geneseo.
It is really great that in these difficult times young people are making the effort to understand the problems of others in countries that are burdened with war and famine and seemingly endless causes of suffering. It is especially challenging now with complex wars ongoing, and limited or distorted news coverage clouding our understanding of the issues, and all the better that their interest is driven by compassion.
The chapter of PANYS at SUNY Geneseo arranged a dinner as a benefit for UNHCR (the United Nations High Council on Refugees). I wondered how many students would have the money to attend a fund raiser, but the turnout was pretty good. And along with about 40 students there were half a dozen activists from the local antiwar community. The organizers earned several hundred dollars for the cause– not bad for a student fundraiser at a State University.
Judy talks about the issues that difficult to hear about. She thinks these youths, and many others, already know that something is missing, something is wrong with the picture they have been provided. But it’s hard to hear the extent to which US foreign policy and the decisions made by our own government make a critical contribution to the suffering of the people in the Middle East. Most of these young people haven’t heard it clearly stated before.
The students want to help. As Americans, we are a can-do people, and a good hearted people. But the cold realities that justify the destruction of a secular, multi-ethnic, religiously tolerant society and the deaths of hundred hundreds of thousands of people with millions more losing their homes and jobs over oil pipelines and political power games are hard to absorb. Who could do such a thing? Governments, like corporations, outsource costs. That means, they don’t take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. The people have to do it. Judy never knows how people are going to respond to this message, but these students give her hope for the future.
And then there is the visceral pain when you hear the story of an individual’s refugee’s journey. Lynda Howland told the story of a Syrian family consisting of Fayez, his wife and four daughters, that she befriended and later adopted, as the war there, little by little, took away everything they had as they faced a seemingly endless series of barriers before opportunities to start a new life began to emerge for them. About a month ago, the two eldest daughters (ages 17 and 20) used smugglers to take them by boat from Istanbul (where they had fled earlier) to the island of Lesbo in Greece, and on across Europe to Sweden. In Sweden, where their father already has refugee status, they were given asylum.
Fayez’ wife and two younger daughters remain in Istanbul, as they don’t have the financial ability pay for the same journey. Lynda corresponds with Fayez and his wife regularly, following their journey in search of a better life and a future for their children. Every day, and every step of the way, these people, like so many of the displaced people we call refugees yearn for the wars to end, for a chance to go home, and for life to go on as it was before.
The politicians are looking at the refugees as a technical problem. To solve the problem we need to see it through the eyes of those who are suffering, as a human problem, and to take responsibility for our part in creating it. Another way is possible. But it requires more than resistance. It requires intelligence and determination and compassion. I want to honor these students for having the compassion to ask what is going on to cause so much suffering in the world, and the courage to hear the answer. Photos are 3 pictures of the girls on their journey and Fayez with children.