Reflecting on The Syrian Refugee Crisis: Will We Know Their Names?

Reflecting on The Syrian Refugee Crisis: Will We Know Their Names?

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Michelle Nunn, President & CEO of CARE

After I accepted my new role as president and CEO of CARE, my Aunt Betty, who is a very young 80, responded with delight and shared a story I had never heard before. She said my beloved grandmother, the first Girl Scout leader in Houston County, Ga., wanted to help the families suffering in Europe after World II. So she made one of the troop’s first projects a fund-raiser to buy CARE Packages, those now iconic packages of food and emergency supplies, for a little girl in France.  And then, without skipping a beat nearly 70 years later, my Aunt Betty told me the little girl’s name: Mary Francois Brune.

A little over two weeks ago, as I sat on the plane returning from a trip to see CARE’s work in response to the Syria crisis, I thought about the scale of the disaster that the world is facing — the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II.  But I now think about this crisis in more personal terms. I also think about it in terms of the names of the girls and women that CARE is helping.

I think about Nisreen.

 “The war took away everything beautiful in my life,” Nisreen, a Syrian refugee, told me as we sat together on the floor of her “home” in Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp about 60 miles outside of Amman. Tens of thousands of other refugees make their homes in the sprawling camp. Nisreen recounted the life she and her family left in Syria. She was an English teacher, her husband an electrician. She had spent most evenings preparing dinner and helping her son with his homework. I thought about the ordinariness of the beauty that she missed.

But war has stolen that ordinary and beautiful life from Nisreen. Her family’s home in Syria was bombed, her husband severely injured. They fled all that was familiar and comfortable and sought refuge in Jordan, where they’re trying to fit together the pieces — “strangers in a strange land,” she said.  Nisreen told me that she had discovered her own strength in the midst of the tragedy and she is now one of CARE’s community advocates, helping create a little bit better life for the families living at the camp. She finds purpose in being their advocate and champion and teaching the next generation of Syrian children.

There are millions of men and women like Nisreen — shopkeepers, lawyers, engineers, construction workers, teachers and electricians whose homes have been bombed, their lives threatened, livelihoods obliterated. The only option many have is to run, and with lives in near-constant peril, they have. One refugee described the chase as “the journey of death,” because she nearly died several times before arriving in Jordan. Another mother pulled up the shirt of her 6-year-old son to reveal a long scar across his stomach where shrapnel had ripped through his body.  

Most of the families I met on my trip had fled their homes with nothing but a small suitcase, hoping they could return within weeks or months. They still dream, but now, unable to work, most of them hope first to keep their families fed and sheltered — and then to get their children back in school. 

CARE is creating hope in the form of vouchers so families can buy food and basic supplies. In other instances, CARE is helping with cash transfers so families can send their children back to school. And CARE is training Syrian refugees as volunteers so they can connect their fellow refugees with medical resources and other psycho-social support. In all, CARE’s response has reached more than 1 million people. But given the magnitude of the crisis, we must do more to mobilize support for refugees as they try to rebuild their lives.  

Seventy years after World War II, a new generation is being called to respond to an historic humanitarian crisis. Will our girl scouts, public servants, diplomats, churches, synagogues and mosques respond with the vision and generosity of the our grandparents after World War II? Will we answer the call? Will we know the names of the girls, women, and families that we have lifted a hand to support?


Michelle Nunn, CEO, CARE USA, meets with Nisreen, a community representative in Azraq refugee camp, Jordan.