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The latest on the Syrian refugee crisis

Amy Goodman interviewed Sarab al-Jijakli, a Syrian-American community organizer on Democracy Now! today, and he shed some light on the Syrian refugee crisis. For one thing, he thinks the US should join Europe in offering resettlement to the refugees (it’s only taken in 1,500 so far in four-plus years), “a drop in the bucket,” as al-Jijakli said, asking “everyone in America to reach out to their elected representatives” on the subject.

Al-Jijakli also criticized US policy in Syria, both now and in the past four years that the civil war’s been going on. “The biggest problem we have in Syria, from a Syrian perspective,” he said, “is who are the overwhelming perpetrators of violence that are driving these refugees out. And overwhelmingly, we know and we find that 85 to 90 percent of all civilians killed are killed by the Assad regime…There are two forces waging war from above. First and foremost, the United States for a year now has controlled the skies over Syria. Much debate is being made over a no-fly zone, etc., but the United States controls Syrian airspace. What’s even more perplexing is that with that control, they’ve allowed the Assad regime to utilize their helicopters and air force to bombard and kill tens of thousands of Syrians from the sky. So it begs the question not about no-fly zones, but why the United States, which is the overwhelming broker of power in the sky over Syria, is allowing so many Syrians to die.”

Juan González then asked al-Jijakli about the Middle Eastern countries like Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey that have taken in millions of Syrian refugees over the past four years, and the latter said that “literally half of Syria’s population is displaced: 4-plus million refugees who have fled outside the country and about 8 million people inside the country. Those refugees that we see on those boats today are fleeing for the second and third time in their lives. The picture we saw of that poor child drowned on the beach, his father initially lived in Damascus, was detained by the regime and had to flee Damascus a first time as a refugee with his family. He went back into Syria to Kobani and then again had to flee again. So, you see this is not a new issue. It’s four-plus years of dispossession and displacement.”

Amy Goodman then spoke with Erik Leidal, a volunteer with the community-run relief group Train of Hope, which is providing assistance to the migrants passing through the Central Train Station in Vienna, Austria. Leidal said, “the Austrians, they don’t take to the streets in protest very often, but they’re showing enormous compassion with their help during this crisis. Train of Hope isn’t run by the Red Cross or Caritas. It’s self-organized, and well over a thousand volunteers have helped out over the past week at the central train station here in Vienna. It’s a very diverse group of individuals who want to make a difference together. And I’d say Train of Hope is resonating off of Occupy in many ways and is taking full advantage of the capacity for social change through social media, like Twitter and Facebook. We’re even using an Indiegogo campaign to fund transportation at ‘Help Syrian Refugees Get to Germany.’ Essential to our team are translators of Arabic, Urdu, Farsi and other languages. We also have doctors and lawyers on our staff who volunteer.

The train station where we meet them, for many, is the first stop in Austria after getting out of Hungary. Most of them are exhausted and confused. The trains are often filled to the brim, and many haven’t eaten for days. Many must wait overnight, some for longer, at the train station before they can go on. Most describe their experience in Hungary as hell on earth.”

Many of the refugees take a boat from Turkey to one of the Greek islands, then make their way to Athens and north to Macedonia. From Macedonia, they travel through Serbia, finally reaching Hungary. Much walking is involved, as well as conflict with and bribing of officials. The refugees finally reach Austria and take a train to Vienna, from which they hope to reach Sweden, Belgium, or Germany, where many have relatives.

Annette Groth, a member of the German Parliament and spokeswoman for human rights for the Left Party, spoke to Amy earlier in the program. She had just returned from a trip to Hungary, where she saw thousands of migrants stranded at the Budapest train station, and visited “concentration camps” holding hundreds of migrants in horrifying conditions – in handcuffs, with no food or water. When I heard Ms. Groth described a family with a young baby being treated in this inhumane way, tears came to my eyes. It’s just wrong.

A friend who’s also concerned about the Syrian refugees sent me a video showing that there are others suffering in the world whom no one hears about. The video shows villagers in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan being bombed by the Sudanese government, which is fighting “rebels” in the area and wants control of the oil and gas in the region. It points out that most of these people have never used electricity or ridden in a motorized vehicle. They hide in caves, behind rocks, and in holes in the ground, trying to shelter from the bombs. An American medical missionary, Dr. Tom Catena, the only doctor in the area, feels privileged to be helping these people (Google his name to find out how to help him).

I e-mailed my friend back saying that her concern about the Sudanese villagers reminded me of the fact that few people know that 8 million civilians have died in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the past 15 years, and suffered atrocities, including vicious rapes. As in Sudan, different groups, “rebels” and governments (the DRC, Uganda, and Rwanda) are fighting over the natural resources, such as coltan, which is used in cell phones and other electronics, with which the Congo is “blessed.”

I think it’s important to be informed about all of this unnecessary suffering, all of which is equally atrocious, and to do our best to find out what we can do to end it. I believe that when you start to do this, you’ll find that governments like ours – and the corporations they support – are complicit in and responsible for the suffering. After all, it was the 2003 US invasion of Iraq that set off the destabilization of the Middle East, just as European colonial powers like Britain, France, Belgium (the Congo), and Portugal created the conditions plaguing Africa today – starting in the 17th century with the slave trade. (Another destabilizing factor in the Middle East is US support for Israel, which has driven millions of Palestinians from their homes, and continues to oppress them in the West Bank and Gaza. Talk about having to flee for your life multiple times – many of these Palestinians, as well as Iraqis, fleeing sectarian conflict in their country, had taken refuge in Syria.

I could go on…but you get the idea.

Become informed, including learning the history. Then I hope you’ll agree with me that it’s ordinary people like us who care who need to overthrow or circumvent their governments and start handling things, including relations with other peoples, themselves. In the meantime, feel free to contact the president and your Congressional representatives. I rarely do, out of principle, because I don’t think they should have so much power, when we have so little, and because I don’t want to support the system. But sometimes when other people do, temporary help is forthcoming that saves lives for the moment.

This reminds me of the upcoming (2016) elections and the campaigning for them already taking place. With Donald Trump in the picture, the process should finally be revealed to all what a ridiculous (though dangerous) sideshow it all is. I can see the age-old argument waiting in the wings – vote for Hillary to avoid the Donald…She is the lesser of two evils, but damn…When/how are we going to demand something better?