CHICAGO: The head of one of the world’s leading aid organizations told religious leaders at a gathering in Chicago this week that they were “not doing enough” to raise public awareness of the globe’s growing refugee crisis.
Dr. Zaher Sahloul, president and founder of MedGlobal, which organizes relief and medical support for refugees around the world including in the Middle East, said public concerns for vulnerable groups have been pushed aside over the past few years. This was because of an increase in violence, conflict, natural disasters and the effects of people campaigning on social media for individual concerns.
Addressing a gathering of nearly 10,000 religious leaders and activists at a convention hosted by the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, Sahloul said the refugee problem was a crisis that continues to worsen. He urged those in attendance to rally their congregations to increase public awareness, empathy and support.
“I blame our faith leaders and policymakers. Maybe social media has a role also because we are bombarded by many crises and people are fixated on certain things. And maybe we are numbed as a society or global community because you have … wildfire in Maui that killed 95 people. You have wars everywhere. You have Ukraine. You have climate change. You have all kinds of stuff. And then the refugees,” Sahloul said, noting that all three major religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism, prescribe great care for refugees.
“I blame faith leaders because they are not making this a priority to their communities. So, we are not hearing that much in churches, in temples, in synagogues or in mosques about refugees despite the refugee crisis. We are not paying attention. In order to sympathize with people you have first of all to know that these people are suffering and then you need to pay attention and educate your community and tell them this is important in our tradition. It is not happening.”
Citing an example, Sahloul alleged that the Russian Orthodox Church was taking sides in the Ukraine war rather than speaking out in defense of refugees.
During an appearance on The Ray Hanania Radio Show Wednesday Aug. 16, Sahloul said tragedies involving refugees have become “so common” that they do not receive the urgency or the heightened attention that they had in the past. The refugee crisis, he said, has become “normalized.”
“It’s huge, boiling under the surface as they say. Right now we have more displaced people and refugees than ever since World War II,” Sahloul said.
“So, some of the estimates from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is that we have about 100 million displaced persons in the world. When we talk about displaced persons, we have to differentiate that from refugees. Refugees are the ones, the persons displaced outside of their country, while a displaced person could be also displaced within their country. We can give an example in Syria because we have a civil war that started 13 years ago, half of the population of Syria are displaced inside their country. So, someone from Damascus lives in Idlib, in Raqqa or in Homs because their areas was completely destroyed or was unsafe and now they are displaced within their countries.”
Sahloul said there are about 30 million refugees, mostly from the Middle East, with Syria being the primary nation of origin.
“(The) refugee is the person who fled their countries because of persecution or because of war. For whatever reason, civil war or external war, to other countries. And there are about 30 million refugees today most of them are from the Middle East,” Sahloul said.
“Syria is still the first country in terms of exporting refugees. There are 6.5 million Syrian refugees, that means people who left Syria to neighboring countries and beyond neighboring countries to Europe and other countries. (That’s) 6.5 million in a country, Syria, that has a population of 22 million. That means one-third of that population left Syria and they are outside of Syria because of the war.”
Sahloul said the top three countries of origin for refugees are Syria with 25 percent, Ukraine and Afghanistan.
But Sahloul said there are also refugees from Sudan, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Eritrea and Myanmar, which includes the Rohingya community. The largest refugee camp is of Rohingyas in Bangladesh with more than 750,000 people.
He said that the public often confuses terms when addressing refugees noting there are different categories of people who have left their homes for various reasons — they are Refugees, Displaced Persons, Economic Migrants and Forced Humanitarian Migrants.
The Parliament of the World’s Religions was launched during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This featured among its many displays, a huge exhibit called “Street in Cairo” with 26 buildings, including a mosque and shops. In addition, there was also a “typical” Arab home featured, that of the leading gold merchant Gamal Al-Din Al-Dhahabi, and an Egyptian Luxor Temple.
The Ray Hanania Radio show is broadcast every Wednesday on the US Arab Radio Network in Detroit on WNZK AM 690 and in Washington D.C. on WDMV AM 700 radio.
You can listen to the radio show’s podcast by visiting ArabNews.com/rayradioshow.