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Refugees International Pleads for Compassion to Help World’s Displaced

By Anna Gawel

Misery is on the rise in many parts of the world — at a time when sympathy seems to be on the wane.

Refugees International wants to combat this apathy by reminding policymakers that helping the 65 million people displaced by conflict and persecution around the world is not only the right move morally, it’s also the smart one politically.

That was the overriding theme of the D.C.-based advocacy group’s 38th Anniversary Dinner on April 25 at Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium that honored Syria’s White Helmets and other humanitarians fighting to raise awareness of the global refugee crisis.

Michel Gabaudan, president of Refugees International, laid that crisis out in stark terms: “65 million refugees and displaced worldwide. That’s 5 million more than last year at the same time. Out of these, 50 percent of them are children,” he said, noting that 34,000 people are forced to flee their homes every day because of conflict and persecution and that more people have been uprooted than at any time since World War II.

Ambassador of Kosovo Vlora Çitaku talks about her experiences being uprooted from her home during the Balkan Wars at Refugees International’s 38th Anniversary Dinner on April 25 at Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium. (Photo: Refugees International)

“More than 30,000 people have died since 2014 crossing the Mediterranean Sea, and more continue to attempt this perilous voyage today,” he added. “Twenty million people are now living on the brink of famine in Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria and South Sudan, where drought and conflict have coalesced into a perfect storm of misery. Out of these, 1.4 million children are now in imminent risk of death.

“These obviously are devastating facts and figures. But these figures are not merely statistics. They represent the staggering and unacceptable number of individual tragedies, and sadly, as this crisis deepens with every passing day, political leaders around the world retreat from longstanding legal and moral obligations to help refugees,” Gabaudan told the 500 guests assembled in the glittering auditorium. “Over the past year and across the world, borders have been closed, walls have been built and hearts have hardened…. And this is frankly unforgivable.”

Vlora Çitaku, ambassador of Kosovo to the U.S. and the evening’s honorary committee chair, lent a human face to Gabaudan’s statistics.

From left, Jehad Mahameed of Syria’s White Helmets celebrates Refugees International’s McCall-Pierpaoli Humanitarian Award with Jordan’s Queen Noor and fellow White Helmet volunteers Manal Abazeed and Mounir Mustafa. (Photo: Refugees International)

“Eighteen years ago, this day, I was a refugee,” said Çitaku, 36, who was displaced by Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic’s attacks on Kosovo’s Muslim population (also see the February 2017 cover of The Washington Diplomat). “And as I watch today’s news, from the Middle East, from Europe, from Africa and elsewhere around the world, where people flee war, violence, persecution and seek refuge, safety and a better life, I think back on what my three sisters and I experienced: the fear, the trauma and the hardships as we were separated from our parents and deported as part of the [Balkan] ethnic cleansing campaign.

“I will never forget my mother shouting, ‘Vlora, take care of your sisters and never, never forget where you come from,’” the ambassador recalled. “Today, millions of refugees around the world are forced to live with those words. Never forget where you come from. Forced to flee their homelands, they live every day in fear and insecurity not knowing what their future holds. This is especially true for children. Often separated from their parents like I was, they don’t know what their future will be without the protection of the family. They might not know where they will sleep, if they will eat and who might target them with prejudice and forms of terrible exploitation.”

Çitaku stressed that “no one wants to be a refugee. No one chooses to be a refugee.”

“Refugees need an organization that fights every day on their behalf, for stronger policies protecting refugees and more humanitarian aid to those living in the harshest of conditions. They need care and they need dignity,” she said. “And while politicians will need their time to address the problems worldwide, the rest of us, well, we just need to be human. We just need to be generous.”

The mission of Refugees International (RI) is to prod global leaders to be more generous toward the world’s displaced (the evening raised over $900,000 for the group’s work). The advocacy organization, which was started in 1979, does not accept government or U.N. funding and seeks to offer impartial assessments to senior government officials on the plight of refugees in countries such as Nigeria, Myanmar and Iraq.

Its on-the-ground field reports have chronicled the devastation in Haiti following Hurricane Matthew; the lack of opportunities for displaced Syrians in Turkey; and the large gaps in humanitarian funding for the violence-plagued Central African Republic. RI says it has played a critical role in increasing U.S. assistance to a range of countries, including Zimbabwe ($54.5 million in additional funding), Iraq ($181 million) and Ukraine (a total of $51 million).

But RI advocates have their work cut out for them under a new Trump administration, which wants to slash funds for diplomacy and development — including to many of the countries where RI has pushed to secure additional aid — while boosting money for defense.

From left, honoree Hassan Shire of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project; Ambassador of Luxembourg Sylvie Lucas; Ambassador of Kosovo Vlora Çitaku; and Ambassador of Somalia Ahmed Isse Awad attend Refugees International’s 38th Anniversary Dinner at Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium.

President Trump’s emphasis on hard power over soft power is laid bare in his proposed fiscal 2018 budget, which would cut international affairs spending by 31 percent even though the entire international affairs budget totals only 1 percent of federal spending (also see story in the May 2017 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

Overall, the 2018 international affairs budget would shrink from $52.8 billion to $37.6 billion, while the Defense Department, whose budget has averaged around $600 billion annually in recent years, would see an increase of $54 billion.

The president has also proposed a major overhaul of aid programs, possibly folding USAID into the State Department and shifting economic and development assistance “to countries of greatest strategic importance to the U.S.”

Meanwhile, reports have surfaced that Trump wants to eliminate a significant percentage of USAID’s field missions and regional bureaus, in addition to trimming about 2,300 diplomatic and civil servant positions through attritions and buyouts.

From left, Samer Asfour of the Embassy of Jordan, Willee Lewis and Ambassador of Jordan Dina Kawar attend Refugees International’s 38th Anniversary Dinner, which raised over $900,000 for the advocacy group.

Among the programs that would be eliminated under Trump’s “skinny” budget: anything related to climate change, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), U.S. Institute of Peace and a number of educational and cultural exchange initiatives, although the Fulbright Program would be spared. Also on the chopping block is funding to the United Nations, where Trump wants to cap peacekeeping contributions to 25 percent, down from the current 28 percent. Food security and health programs would be gutted, and assistance would be slashed to nearly every region in the world, with countries like Ukraine and Jordan taking a particularly big hit.

The White House says the cuts are long overdue, arguing that the State Department/USAID budget ballooned under President Obama to fund “pet projects” such as LGBT rights and climate change initiatives — increases that are no longer justified now that the U.S. is engaged in fewer wars. They also say that a more centralized, leaner diplomatic corps will force it to be more effective and efficient.

Democrats (and many GOP foreign policy hawks) call the cuts cruel and reckless, threatening America’s reputation and security.

From left, former U.S. Ambassador Walter Cutler, Didi Cutler, Isabel Vital and Ambassador of Portugal Domingos Fezas Vital were among the 500 guests at Refugees International’s 38th Anniversary Dinner.

Critics have also blasted Trump’s efforts to restrict the number of refugees admitted into the United States. His controversial refugee ban, first enacted shortly after he assumed office in January, barred people traveling from seven predominately Muslim nations for 90 days and put an immediate four-month hold on the entire U.S. refugee resettlement program until more “extreme vetting” could be put into place. It also banned entry of all Syrian refugees indefinitely.

After an initial uproar, Trump revised the plan to drop Iraq from the list of seven banned nations, leaving Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. But the executive order keeps Trump’s initial pledge to accept no more than 50,000 refugees in a year, down from the 110,000 cap set by the Obama administration. 

The refugee ban remains mired in legal challenges, which will force the administration to show why those six targeted countries pose a particular threat to national security. It will also have to prove to the courts that order does not constitute a blanket ban on Muslims.

“I view this very dangerous decision to close the doors of the United States to refugees from around the world [that is] deeply integrated into questions of American national security,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a vocal proponent of aid programs who was honored by RI with the Congressional Leadership Award.

House Minority Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) addresses the crowd at Refugees International’s 38th Anniversary Dinner. (Photo: Refugees International)

“We are feeding the terrorist recruiters’ efforts when we say that refugees, especially refugees from Muslim countries, are inherently a danger to the United States,” Murphy said via video link. “When we refuse to work with our partner nations around the world to address the 65 million refugees and [internally displaced] worldwide — the highest number since World War II — we are contributing to global instability that breeds terrorism and extremism that ultimately will find its way onto our shores.

“The United States has to remember who we are, a country founded by political refugees,” he added. “We throughout our recent history have brought hundreds of thousands of refugees to this country, from the Balkans, from Vietnam, and we have to remember the horror of a policy today in which the United States bombs countries, creating a humanitarian catastrophe inside, and then locks the citizens inside those countries, throwing away the key, because we have shut our doors for refugees.”

He concluded by declaring: “That’s not a foreign policy. That’s a horror movie.”

Similarly, fellow Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority speaker, did not mince words about Trump’s policies toward refugees.

Pelosi dismissed the airstrike that Trump ordered last month on a Syrian airfield used by President Bashar al-Assad following a chemical attack Assad reportedly launched on a rebel-held area that killed scores of people. She said the one-time strike does not negate Trump’s lack of regard for the victims of violence and other crises, as evidenced by his refugee ban and proposed budget cuts.

“We degrade our values and our security when we slam the door in the face of children fleeing atrocities. The world needs America’s leadership now more than ever to spare children from tragedy and not only in Syria. We have the same level of responsibility to the child dying of saran as to the child dying of starvation,” she said, noting the specter of famine looming over Yemen and other nations.

“Slashing the State Department budget and foreign aid budget by 30 percent would only deepen the crisis facing children and contribute to the fury and despair in these regions,” she warned, but added, “I think we have bipartisan support to resist that drastic cut.”

Indeed, Democrats were able to fend off most of the cuts that Trump sought for the remaining fiscal 2017 budget, which passed in early May. Trump secured less than half of the money he wanted for the Pentagon ($15 billion) and the Department of Homeland Security ($1.5 billion) — with DHS money for the U.S.-Mexico border going strictly toward maintenance and technological upgrades rather than constructing Trump’s envisioned wall between the two countries.

Author Kati Morton, wife of the late Richard Holbrooke, left, presents an award named in Holbrooke’s honor to Hassan Shire, executive director of Defend Defenders (the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project) and chairman of the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network. (Photos: Refugees International)

In fact, the $1 trillion spending bill was widely seen as a victory for Democrats, who preserved or increased funding to agencies such as the State Department, NIH, NASA, Planned Parenthood, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, IRS and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Pelosi used the RI podium to take a swipe at the president’s sense of compassion.

“The suffering in Syria and especially the suffering of Syria’s children is a challenge to the conscience of the world. There could not be a clearer contrast in meeting that challenge between the conduct of some,” Pelosi emphasized, alluding to Trump, “and the extraordinary heroism of White Helmets.”

The White Helmets, otherwise known as the Syria Civil Defense, were indeed the stars of the evening. The group of volunteers has earned worldwide acclaim for risking their lives to save people in a warzone that has killed upwards of 400,000 people over the last six years.

In fact, on the night of the RI dinner, the group’s leader, Raed Al Saleh, was in New York being honored by Time magazine as one of its 100 most influential people. The next day, he traveled to D.C. to join RI in lobbying members of Capitol Hill for more aid funding.

Jordan’s Queen Noor presented RI’s McCall-Pierpaoli Humanitarian Award to three top White Helmets — Mounir Mustafa, Manal Abazeed, and Jehad Mahameed — lavishing praise on the group’s “commitment to human welfare, dignity and peace.”

“They are a shining light of humanity emerging from the darkness that has engulfed Syria over the past six years. When the bombs rain down … these brave men and women rush toward danger to save their fellow Syrians,” she said. “The White Helmets are from all walks of life — shop owners, students, engineers, pharmacists and painters. They are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. What unites them, and their loved ones, is their commitment to the principles of humanity, solidarity and impartiality.”

Queen Noor said these “unarmed volunteers risk their lives to help anyone in need regardless of religion or politics. As one member of the White Helmets said, ‘When I save someone’s life, I don’t care if he’s enemy or a friend. What concerns me is that a soul might die.’

“To date, the White Helmets have saved the lives of more than 85,000 Syrian men, women and children,” she said. “But in doing so, more than 165 volunteers have lost their own lives.”

One of those volunteers is Khaled Omar Harrah, who was pictured on the front cover of the RI dinner brochure smiling broadly as he held a young child. A year before the photo was taken, Harrah had pulled the boy from the rubble of collapsed building when he was just 10 days old, a moment that became known worldwide as the “miracle baby” rescue. In 2016, Harrah was killed by a “double tap” airstrike intended to target rescue workers coming to the aid of victims after a bombing.

In an interview with the Vocativ website shortly after the boy’s rescue, Harrah said at the time: “If I die saving lives, I think God would definitely consider me a martyr.”

Anna Gawel is the managing editor for The Washington Diplomat.




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