As the United States debates how to properly vet 10,000 Syrian refugees expected to resettle here, employees with Samaritan’s Purse are stationed on the frontlines in Greece, working to be a “face of compassion” for refugees fleeing war and terror.
Ken Isaacs, vice president of programs and government relations for Samaritan’s Purse, spent a week in Greece, where the Christian organization has deployed employees and contractors to the region to assist scores of refugees flowing into the country, with hopes of continuing deeper into Europe.
There, the group’s workers meet refugees arriving by rubber rafts on Greek islands and provide them with food, water and blankets, among other items.
Workers with Samaritan’s Purse are also stationed in transit centers near the border of Croatia and Serbia, where they provide medical attention, food and blankets to refugees arriving there.
Since the start of the Syrian civil war four years ago, more than 4 million Syrians—a fifth of the population—have fled the country. Nearly 2 million Syrian refugees have traveled to Turkey and more than 1 million fled to Lebanon, with many living in refugee camps.
Others, though, are taking the dangerous journey across the Aegean Sea to Greece on rubber rafts with plans to move throughout Europe, with Germany serving as the final destination for many, Isaacs said. Germany is expected to take in 800,000 refugees.
Just over 2,000 Syrian refugees, meanwhile, have resettled in the United States since the start of the civil war in Syria. As news spread of the growing refugee crisis, though, the Obama administration announced the government would accept 10,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year.
In an email interview with The Daily Signal, Isaacs, who was traveling abroad, shared his experiences helping refugees fleeing Syria.
“I understand that people have legitimate concerns about accepting refugees into their countries,” he said. “However, the vast majority of these refugees are fleeing war and terrorism in their own countries and are seeking safety and security for their families. We are working to meet the needs of refugees right where they are.”
‘Thrilled to be Alive’
The world truly began to ‘confront’ the Syrian refugee crisis in early September after a photo of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body lying facedown on a Turkish beach was published by Turkish media.
Wearing a red shirt, dark shorts and Velcro sneakers, Kurdi, with his family, left Syria and traveled across Turkey, bound for Greece, but the young Kurdish boy drowned after the rubber raft he and his family were traveling in across the Aegean Sea capsized.
For many fleeing Syria, Isaacs said, their journeys to Greece carry them either on foot or by sea, with many bringing few belongings in backpacks or bags. Children as young as 2 or 3 years old walk alongside their parents, who often carry their younger siblings in their arms, he said.
“Those who are arriving by rafts are thrilled to be alive—as the journey across the Aegean Sea is harrowing,” Isaacs said. “Most refugees travel without knowing exactly where they will end up, but many whom I talked with mentioned Germany as their desired destination.”
Many who arrive on Greek islands such as Kos—where Kurdi and his family were traveling to—are in a desperate state, Isaacs said. It is then that Samaritan’s Purse employees step in, providing refugees with food, blankets and water. The organization also gives refugees access to sanitation and hygiene services.
“[T]he situation is desperate as people are coming off of the rafts wet, cold, and hungry and many dehydrated,” Isaacs said of refugees journeying across the Aegean Sea. “They land in Greece exhausted, disoriented and there’s an inherent language barrier.”
In addition to traveling across the Aegean Sea, refugees are also fleeing their country for Croatia and Serbia, boarding busses or paying for taxis to take them to the border. There, Samaritan’s Purse workers meet the refugees at transit centers and provide them with aid before they travel throughout Croatia.
The Serbian government announced last week that it would only accept refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Associated Press. The Croatian government followed suit, but is also admitting refugees from Pakistan.
“We need to meet their basic needs as they are traveling with such little resources and in countries foreign to them,” Isaacs said. “These refugees need food, clean water, places to shower and use the facilities.”
The ‘Face of Compassion’
Though many refugees are pouring into Greece and will later move throughout Europe, it’s the U.S.’ decision to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees that has ignited a debate on the homefront, amplified by the terror attacks in Paris that killed 130 and injured at least 350.
Following reports that a fake Syrian passport was found near one of the attacks, governors across the U.S. and policy makers in Washington, D.C., called on the Obama administration to pause the acceptance of Syrian refugees through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.
Both Republicans and Democrats expressed concerns regarding the federal government’s ability to thoroughly vet Syrians looking to resettle in the U.S., citing a lack of information available to screen.
Last week, the House passed a bill temporarily halting the refugee program until the Obama administration implements new security measures. The legislation also requires the director of the FBI, director of National Intelligence and secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to certify that every refugee admitted to the U.S. from Syria and Iraq is not a security threat.
The legislation faces an uncertain future in the Senate.
Though the screening process for refugees can take up to two years, many fear ISIS terrorists will try to gain entry into the U.S. through the program.
Isaacs, though, said many of the refugees he’s seen are fleeing violence and terrorism.
He spoke of a recent interaction he had with a man who left Syria with seven members of his family.
The man held a stable job in Syria and was considered among the middle class, but was forced to leave his native country when there was an outbreak of fighting in his neighborhood, fearing his house would be bombed. Isaacs said the man had a young son who he worried would be forced into the military, as others were forced to do during door-to-door searches and at roadblocks.
In addition to families, Isaacs, said, are “thousands” of women and children who arrive on beaches in Greece and continue walking in search of food and warmth.
“We are able to be a face of compassion after their long, hard journey by supplying them with blankets, food, water and other relief items,” he said.
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