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Beware: 4 Refugee Myth Busters

by Martha Newsome | Jan 28, 2017

President & CEO

Recently I had a chance to take a whistle stop tour through three of five remote districts in Uganda hosting 967,054 refugees from six nations.  Quietly and without fanfare, violence, or struggle 1,600 to 1,800 refugees are arriving at the transit sites from South Sudan every day – day after day.  They line up quietly waiting for Medical Teams International staff, working with translators, to poke at them and their children and determine their bill of health. They sit under trees or on benches for hours, barely talking, waiting for their kit of rudimentary supplies, so they can then be bused to some barren plot to build their own makeshift house and begin their lives as refugees in Uganda.  A large percent of them are women and children, having left the men behind to try and farm, to defend their land, or to fight in the ugly civil war ravaging the country side.

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South Sudanese refugees arriving in Uganda wait in line for Medical Teams to do health intake. EVERY refugee entering Uganda is seen by our staff.

Uncomplaining staff from Medical Teams International, United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), World Food Programme (WFP), and many other non-profit organization partners work diligently for hours all clad in their branded t-shirts.  There is no time to waste as every day, more refugees arrive and need to be registered, receive their supplies and health screening and get to their small plots of land all within 24 hours.  The only hint of a security concern is that the transit site tells us they have sent the small number of Dinka arrivals to a separate and enclosed sleeping quarters – a remaining sign of the ethnic tension being fomented by President Salva Kiir in a desperate bid to stay in power. 

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Martha Holley Newsome, President & CEO of Medical Teams International, listening to the the stories of South Sudanese refugees who arrived in Uganda that day.

The makeshift and temporary health centers are teeming with people, the pediatric wards full of wee ones on drips for malaria.  Over one-third of all patients seen have this dreaded disease but once over the border they are treated; I don’t want to think about the ones on the other side without any health services or medicines to keep people from dying.  At home in the U.S., this is a completely unknown tragedy.  While we fret about Syrian refugees and immigration, the South Sudanese have no hope of jumping across the vast ocean separating our continents.  Although far from U.S. shores, we must not ignore the burden that faces countries like Uganda, Lebanon, and Turkey as they take in thousands of extremely vulnerable people every day.  In fact, in listening to our news, I’m afraid there are some pretty mistaken notions about refugees, international aid, and our borders, and it’s time to bust these popular myths:

  1. MYTH: The U.S. and the West carry the lion’s share of the burden for caring for the world’s refugees.  REALITY: It’s actually poorer, neighboring countries the bear the lion’s share of the burden.  One in every four people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee.  To understand this statistic, imagine the headline if the US had welcomed 80 million Syrian refugees across our border?
  2. MYTH: We Should Cut Our Foreign Aid. REALITY: The funds from US State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (BPRM) matter.  BPRM is providing critical aid to help Medical Teams International and other partners care for refugees in cross-border settlements.  This provides stability and even enables some to thrive while they wait for conditions in their country to improve, with hopes and dreams of returning home. The tiny percent of funds that the United States spends on foreign aid stabilizes populations, provides hope that they can return to their home countries and helps young refugee boys to get an education rather than joining guerilla or terrorist movements that offer them some limited pay and a deadly alternative vision for a better life.
  3. MYTH: UN Agencies are Freeloaders. REALITY: Au contraire. The UN, too, is our friend. Let’s be clear that some of our tax payer dollars are funding critical UN institutions like UNHCR, WFP, and UNFPA:  all of whom are at work with us helping provide shelter, food, and emergency maternal care to refugees.
  4. MYTH: Refugees are Terrorists. REALITY: While there are extremely rare examples of terrorism linked to refugees, the vast, vast majority of the 65 million refugees in the world today are not terrorists – they are innocent victims of injustice and war.  They are mothers and daughters struggling for dignity, fathers and sons desperate for the smallest crack of opportunity.  Most of them are waiting out conflict in neighboring countries, waiting to go home.  This is where Medical Teams International is working today.

refugee-relief-malaria-treatment-south-sudan-ugandaI cannot erase the image in my mind of the South Sudanese mother who sat on the cardboard covered ground at the Medical Teams clinic at the Palaroinya Base Camp. Her infant sat in her lap, receiving lifesaving treatment for malaria. She was up all night, the nurse told me, watching the fevers ravage her baby, and like every mother everywhere, she would not rest until her child’s fever broke, until he rested first, until it was clear he would live to see the morning.

Meanwhile the faces of the South Sudanese in Uganda haunt me, like the two young men who had traveled thousands of miles across South Sudan to make it to our health center, after one of them was shot, their scrawny and thin bodies and hollow cheeks telling a grim story of the pain they had witnessed and experienced leading to their flight.  They are the lucky ones as it’s probable that most of their family may have died.  Or like the grandmother sitting under a tree, taking care of her disabled grandchild, her eyes empty and without hope, hiding from the camera, not wanting her pain to be transcribed in a photo for others to see. How can I and we as a country enable them to heal, survive and thrive? 

I am thankful that millions of Americans are supporting marginalized and vulnerable refugees around the world through organizations like Medical Teams International.  As a Christian, I am compelled to love my neighbor as myself, even when they are in far-off Lebanon or Uganda. I want to be part of the solution, moved to action by the pain of the 65 million displaced people and refugees.  Perhaps you like me, want to pay it forward and pay a debt of gratitude for the blessings you’ve received. 

Here are some tangible ways that you can make a difference right now:

  1. Support UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.
  2. Support private organizations like Medical Teams International who are on the front lines in responding to refugees who flee their countries longing for a safe place to land. Donate now.
  3. Support government funding for refugees as a way to stabilize marginalized populations and prevent terrorism from taking root.
  4. Do your part to humanize the issue of refugees, remembering that they are ordinary people just like you and me who love their families desperately and want to live in peace.
  5. Call your congressperson to tell them you support ongoing state department funding for refugee families around the world.
  6. Educate yourself on the issues.