THE BLOG

We Must Turn Our Empathy for Syrian Refugees Into Action

09/14/2015 05:16 EDT | Updated 09/14/2016 05:12 EDT
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Syrian refugees make their way on a railway track after crossing the border between Serbia and Hungary in Roszke, southern Hungary, Monday, Sept. 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

While little shocks us these days, one cannot help but be shaken by the stories emerging from the unfolding refugee crisis. The image of Alan Kurdi, who drowned off Turkey's coast on September 2nd, strikes a raw nerve in the heart of every parent. So too does the knowledge that, for every horrible image of a refugee who died in a failed attempt to reach Europe, countless more await help throughout the Middle East.

Within Canada's Jewish community, the notion that millions have fled the violence in Syria ignites within us an instinctive need to take action. Several months ago, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) met with the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, and we have since connected the Alliance with key officials in Ottawa and worked cooperatively to raise the profile of this tragedy. Grassroots Jewish Canadians, alongside Canadians of all backgrounds, are likewise mobilizing in response to this crisis, with various synagogues in the process of sponsoring refugees for asylum here in Canada. To cite just one example, Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS) of Toronto, an outstanding non-profit organization with nearly a century of experience, is working closely with Lifeline Syria in its effort to help sponsors navigate the process.

This vital work -- which demands significant funds, paperwork, and patience -- brings to life the Talmudic insight that one who saves a single life saves an entire world. In total, Ottawa has committed to resettling 10,000 refugees from Iraq and Syria through to 2018, a complex project that requires extensive screening and services to help refugees adjust to life in Canada.

Resettlement will enable many Syrians to provide their children an opportunity to escape what will be remembered as one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the 21st century. However, asylum in the West can only resolve a fraction of the crisis unfolding on the ground in the Middle East.

The numbers are staggering: 50 per cent of Syria's population has been displaced. At least four million Syrian refugees have taken shelter in five Middle Eastern countries. In Jordan alone, more than 650,000 Syrians have arrived, 80 per cent of whom live below the poverty line. Tens of thousands languish in refugee camps with no hope of resettling in the West or returning to their homes.

To some extent, the situation on the ground in the Middle East is being overshadowed by the traumatic news of the migrant crisis at Europe's doorstep. For those who have been to the region, it is impossible to ignore the need to devote greater resources for the care of refugees who remain in the Middle East -- and comprise the vast majority of those who have fled Syria.

Last week, I joined a delegation of Jewish community leaders organized by CIJA on a trip to the region that included a meeting with His Majesty King Abdullah of Jordan. We discussed the need for the international community to support Jordan's efforts to alleviate the suffering of Syrian refugees and combat regional extremism. It is clear that the two imperatives go hand-in-hand: Jordan can best advance regional stability by providing for the basic needs of the hundreds of thousands of vulnerable residents who have sought shelter within its borders.

We quickly realized that, in the face of such a challenge, we cannot be indifferent and expect governments alone to bear the refugee burden. CIJA proposed a partnership between Canada's Jewish community, Canada's business community, and Jordan to help address the humanitarian challenges facing refugees. King Abdullah welcomed the initiative. We are working with the King's advisers and partners in Canada's business community to secure resources for this project.

I encourage you to connect with me if you are interested in supporting this vital initiative -- and turning our heartfelt empathy into meaningful action.

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