The number of people driven from their homes and villages by political conflict since the beginning of the workweek last Monday equals the population of Utah’s capital city.
That grim figure — along with many other realities surrounding the growing number of refugees across the globe — were anchoring elements at a conference Friday in Salt Lake City focusing on the world’s alarming refugee crisis.
Hosted by LDS Charities and AMAR U.S., a Middle East refugee assistance organization, the one-day conference helped raise awareness of the many challenges facing refugees. Presenters and panelists also shared ideas on assisting Utah’s own growing refugee communities, including ways to utilize each refugee’s unique talents and traits.
The familiar adage “Think globally — act locally” is apt advice for Utahns eager to help ease the suffering of the world’s estimated 51.2 million refugees and/or internally displaced people.
“The best thing you can do to help a refugee is to befriend a refugee,” said Gerald Brown, director of the state’s refugee services office
LDS Charities director Sharon Eubank noted there are more political refugees today “than at anytime since World War II.” Instability in Syria, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and other volatile nations has resulted in historic numbers of refugees.
Children are bearing the brunt of the global refugee crisis, said Eubank. Often, she added, “the children have to work and forego school. Their childhoods have been stolen from them.”
Many are being criminally exploited.
Government and private humanitarian agencies alike are working to provide services, relief and hope to refugee communities. But several presenters at the conference emphasized that individuals and local communities and businesses can also be key allies in confronting the refugee crisis.
“People of goodwill can rise up and say, ‘I can do something,’ ” said Eubank.
Larry Bartlett, the U.S. State Department’s director of refugee admissions, said federal agencies sometimes have limited influence on what happens on the ground. “There remains a great need for local community advocates working closely with elected officials,” he said.
He added that refugees resettled in the United States are sometimes viewed as burdens to their new communities. But local resettlement advocates can “share the message” that refugees can enrich neighborhoods.
Each and every refugee has a unique talent to be valued and utilized, said Baroness Emma Nicholson of Winterbourne, the president of AMAR U.S. and the United Kingdom’s trade envoy to Iraq.
In her conference keynote address, Nicholson spoke of her recent travels near the Iraqi-Syrian border where she witnessed the tragic plight of “lost people” displaced from their homes by the militant Islamic State.
Most, she said, have endured deep levels of abuse and horror. “Some are literally speechless — they can’t speak anymore.”
Global relief organizations such as AMAR and LDS Charities — along with individuals and local agencies — share the task of finding permanent solutions to the world’s historic refugee crisis. Refugees and other displaced people, of course, require food, warmth and medical attention, said Nicholson. But they also need reliable social structures, access to information resources and, yes, friendship and personal relationships.
“The spark of life inside each human being deserves to grow and burn and turn into a flame,” she said.