This Holiday Season, Understand the Human Toll of Refugee Crisis

A line of hundreds of Rohingya refugees awaiting entry to a camp in Bangladesh.

As we celebrate this Advent season, a time of anticipation, wonder, prayer and reflection before Christmas, we find ourselves at an unprecedented time in modern history, where more people worldwide are refugees than ever before.

The rising tide of displaced people has exposed an unfortunate paradox: As the number of people in crisis has dramatically increased, our capacity to care has drastically diminished. In the world of humanitarian aid, where I work, we call this compassion fatigue. Refugees, asylum seekers and people left displaced in their own countries have become the great hurting unknown.

In recent weeks, for many Americans, stories of the Central American caravan trekking across the Mexican landscape on their bruised and battered feet have evoked strong emotions. We’ve seen images of American military personnel on the southern border, stretching razor wire, placing cement barricades and even using tear gas. The human tragedy driving the caravan came into focus this week with the tragic death of a seven-year-old Guatemalan girl.

Jakelin is a tragic reminder of the human cost of forced displacement. It shouldn’t take the death of an innocent to jar us into recognizing this. What we’re now seeing is the unfortunate byproduct of the caravan’s proximity to the U.S.: The politicization of the displaced.

As the president and CEO of a humanitarian aid organization I want to caution us against generalizing the displaced. Far too often we view them as faces in a crowd—or worse yet, numbers. As Jakelin reminds us, they aren’t.

They’re human beings, with families and dreams, thrust into a desperate situation. I know this because I’ve sat with refugees in settlements in some of the hardest places in the world.

In Bangladesh, I met a woman named Fatima who told me about how she fled her burning village last year while pregnant. She walked for days. I remember her eyes filling with sadness as she said through an interpreter, “I feared I would be killed.”

In the same camp, a Rohingya woman named Rukiya told a similar story. She’d somehow escaped violence on foot with five children. She’d formed a bond with two other women in the camp, and they all seemed so strong. I asked her how she was able to survive. “Together,” she said. “We need each other. We stick together. It’s the only way.”

The international refugee crisis is a genuine human tragedy, one that’s unprecedented in post-war history. More than 68.5 million people have been forced from their homes. Regardless of their individual circumstances, one constant remains true: These are people pushed to the margins because of persecution, war and famine in their home countries.

And while the numbers are truly striking, they also mask the crisis’ human toll. This is the paradox. Melissa Fleming, chief spokesperson for the UN’s refugee agency, calls statistics “human beings with the tears dried off.” Behind the statistics, Fleming says, are real people fleeing real violence and carrying with them only hope for the future.

“Statistics are human beings with the tears dried off.”

During this holiday period, it’s a time to open our hearts and our minds to understand the human nature of the crisis, despite our political differences.  After all, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, too, were refugees, who fled to Egypt to escape violence.  Their displacement then and the mass displacement of people now, is a human tragedy that deserves our attention and action, or the suffering will continue—for those in the caravan, and countless others around the globe.

So, in this Christmas and holiday season of generosity let’s remember those who have lost so much and take practical steps to reach out to ease their suffering, whether that’s volunteering time or resources, donating to your favorite organization, learning more or having thoughtful conversations. Keep compassion in our hearts and remember that every person matters.


Martha Holley Newsome is the president and CEO of Medical Teams International. With a Master of Public Health from Johns Hopkins University, she has spent more than 30 years caring for the health needs of others. 

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