‘I met many women refugees in Iraq and heard their stories, each was distressing’
‘Are we going to help or are we just going to watch and think how awful the situation is?’
Migrants reach out to get food during their walk out of Budapest on Friday. Photograph: AP Photo/Frank Augstein
Some call them migrants, some call them refugees. I call them mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters and brothers.
The photograph of the little boy, Aylan Kurdi, lying face down on the beach in Turkey has haunted us all this week. We’ve heard about the horrific journey his family and many others have undertaken. We cannot begin to imagine how life must have been for them in Syria when they were prepared to embark on such a treacherous journey. And still they made the choice to go because in reality they had no choice.
A few months ago I travelled to northern Iraq where I met women refugees from Syria. One lady, called Nisreen, told me how she and her husband and two children fled Syria.
“It was not safe and we knew we had to go. We walked to Iraq. When we came here we had nothing except the clothes on our back.”
They spent four months in a refugee camp before moving on. When they left the camp they found they were not welcome in the villages, instead having to sleep on the ground in the outskirts. Nisreen told me in a very quiet, subdued voice that she had a lovely home in Syria. She would love to go back but she knows in her heart that this won’t happen. She worries about her children, a boy and a girl, who are having difficulty settling in to this new strange environment. The other children in the village know that they are not from the area, they refuse to let them join in any games and bully them. Nisreen walks them to school for their own safety.
Nisreen’s story is not unique. I met many women refugees in Iraq and heard their stories, each one of them distressing. Every day there are thousands of women and families fleeing not only Syria but other countries including Iraq, Somalia and South Sudan. Not all of them will make it to safety, as we well know. But Nisreen knows that despite the struggles still facing her family, she made the right decision to leave.
We have decisions to make too. Are we going to help or are we just going to watch and think how awful the situation is? You can help by supporting a Syria appeal and by lobbying the government to enable more refugees to safely enter our country and communities. This is not about the Government being kind, it’s about doing its duty, meeting its international commitments and upholding human rights. And it’s about providing sufficient support when refugees do arrive.
Then, society has another decision to make. Are we going to accept and welcome these families when they come to our country or are we going to look down on them, graffiti their homes or complain when they are given a house or a nursery place?
Reaching our shores is not the end, it is just the beginning of another long and unpredictable journey.
It is now that we must truly show our love and our compassion and do the most important thing of all – open our hearts, not only to Syrian refugees but to every refugee.
Rosamond Bennett is CEO of Christian Aid Ireland