09/18/2015 08:10 EDT | Updated 09/18/2016 05:12 EDT

Syrians are One Wave in an Ocean of Refugees

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
DADAAB, KENYA - OCTOBER 12: This photo taken on October 4, 2014 shows a refugee woman crouching in front of a hovel at Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, the largest refugee complex in the world, where thousands of Somalis, Tanzanians, Sudanese and Ethiopians fleeing conflicts in their countries have found shelter and live under tough living conditions. (Photo by Cem Genco/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

by: Craig and Marc Kielburger

Abdibasi Ahmed Hussein hasn't spoken a word in eight years. Not since a cruise missile killed the 14-year-old boy's father and brother in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 2008. Since then, over half his life has passed in Dadaab, Kenya, the world's largest refugee camp.

Abdibasi's frustrated mother recently told Canadian journalist Michelle Shephard that there is little support to help her deal with her son's severe PTSD. He was just starting to show signs of recovery when a 2012 terrorist bomb attack in Dadaab shattered his mind again.

Thousands of children have been born and raised in Dadaab, never knowing any life but that of a refugee, no home other than a tent. Next year marks the 25th year of its interminable existence.

The heart-rending image of Alan Kurdi dead in the sand, as though sleeping peacefully, sparked a global mobilization to aid Syrian refugees. But while they number more than four million, Syrians still only represent one-fifth of the almost 20 million refugees in the world today -- the greatest global refugee population since World War II. Refugees like Abdibasi and his mother aren't making world headlines, but their plights are no less desperate.

While Canadians open their homes and wallets to Syrian refugees, here are some of the others we cannot allow to be forgotten.

Sub-Saharan Africa

To this day we are haunted by the memory of a Somali father standing in line to be admitted to Dadaab in 2011, desperately clutching his eight-year-old son's hand. In a whisper, he told us his wife and other three children did not survive the journey. They lie in shallow roadside graves somewhere between Somalia and Dadaab.

The sprawling camp of more than 350,000, mostly Somalis, has been called an open-air prison. Shephard, who has visited Dadaab several times, tells us little has changed since her first trip in 2006.

"My god, these people are living in limbo," she says.

This summer, funding shortages forced the World Food Program to cut back food aid to Dadaab.

With ongoing violence in South Sudan, Somalia and the Central African Republic, there are now more than three million refugees living in exile in sub-Saharan countries like Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda.


Before chaos descended on Syria in 2011, the biggest source of refugees in the world was Afghanistan. More than five million Afghans fled the conflict that followed the 2001 fall of the Taliban. While many have subsequently returned, the UN refugee agency knows of at least 1.65 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and 950,000 in Iran, where they face constant government persecution and, in Pakistan, violent Taliban attacks.

To escape horrible conditions, thousands of Afghans have made their way by air to Indonesia. From there, with the aid of unscrupulous human traffickers, they take ill-maintained boats across the Indian Ocean to try and reach Australia.

South East Asia

The Afghans' shipmates are frequently ethnic minority Tamils fleeing persecution by Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority, and Burmese escaping regional conflicts or their country's notoriously brutal military regime. There are more than 200,000 Tamil refugees in India and Nepal, and more than 120,000 Burmese in camps in Thailand.

In the first three months of 2015, the UN estimates that 300 refugees died in boats in the waters off South East Asia, seeking safe harbour.


Closer to Syria, thousands of Yemenis have for months been crossing the Gulf of Aden in boats destined for Djibouti and Somaliland to escape civil war and Saudi bombing in their country.

The Palestinians

Millions of Palestinians still live in camps scattered across the Middle East. Some of these camps have existed since the 1950s -- some of the residents are third-generation refugees.

Abdibasi did not die a telegenic death on a western beach, but lingers wordlessly in an arid, overcrowded purgatory, largely forgotten by the world. "Does it take a tragedy to make people pay attention? Sadly it does," Shephard commented to us.

A boy died on a beach because the world ignored the Syrian refugee crisis until it was too late. Must more children die to make us act on all the others?

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.


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