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Crying children taken from their parents’ arms at the border between the US and Mexico; families forcibly separated; juvenile prison camps - as controversy swirls around political decisions, the peace-loving people of the world stare at their screens in helpless outrage. Even as President Trump signs an order to finally cease the separation of families at the border, the world holds their breath for the next violation of human rights. Can anything be done?
Working together really works. The policy reversal came after the faith communities of the world joined the outcry. Over 600 United Methodist Church clergy and members brought charges of child abuse and malicious use of false doctrine against US Attorney General Jeff Sessions (a Methodist himself) over the offensive border polices. An interfaith group of leaders from diverse traditions joined their voices in a single call for the US government to stop.
As the news alerts of us humanitarian crises after another, another news trend is emerging: stories of the helpers. Ordinary people coming together to speak out and act in response to the injustice. In the instance of refugees, community groups – big and small – are among the forefront of those rising to meet the emotional needs of the displaced.
The United Religions Initiative (URI) is one such example. This network of grassroots peacebuilding groups works in 106 countries, including high-conflict areas like Nigeria, Yemen, Pakistan, and the Israeli-Palestinian border. Its members have seen the preconditions for violent conflict being constructed before, and they feel deep sorrow as they see it now. URI members work in communities around the world to heal the trauma seeded over years and decades by the hurt, fear, and anger generated from terrible situations like this one.
The URI responders aren’t experts in refugee law or international relations; they’re just normal people who couldn’t stand by and watch the emotional distress of their fellow humans. When URI member Marianne Horling recognized the pain of Syrian refugee children who had lost everything to flee to Germany, she knew she had to help. Realizing that language was a barrier, she decided to lead painting workshops and provide the children with an outlet to express their trauma. She and her team worked with the children, teaching them some useful phrases in German and helping them acclimate to their new host country along the way. As a result, the children felt a little less isolated as they adjusted to their new surroundings. As they processed their trauma in a healthy way, it helped them to not repeat the cycle of pain and conflict. “Perhaps,” Marianne said, “the next generation will say, okay, we can also contribute something to the world.”
Responding to the plight of refugee children who had fled violence in Syria, members of the URI Middle East and North Africa regional office brought a portable classroom to a refugee camp in Jordan, holding classes and activities to help the children sustain a sense of normalcy. The younger children, having never known a life outside the refugee camp, and were amazed by their first opportunity to attend an actual school. “Words cannot describe how happy the children were,” said URI Middle East Coordinator Mamoun Ahmad. “The smiles never left their faces.”
"While it may not feel like it, I truly believe that we 'ordinary' people have the power to impact situations like this one,” says Sari Heidenreich, URI North America Coordinator. “What is needed is for us to work together, to mobilize and to demand a change.” Right now, members in the URI North America region are gathering for a virtual meeting across the US and Canada specifically focused on how local interfaith groups can help families affected by the border separation, and how to respond more effectively to similar situations in the future. The San Francisco Interfaith Council, a URI member group, is holding a vigil for people of every faith background to come together to protect immigrants’ human rights.
URI’s grassroots groups aren’t just made of any naively-optimistic volunteers. They are formed of at least seven members from three different faith and cultural backgrounds—meaning, in order to act together, the members must first cross the hurdle of cooperating with people who don’t share many of their deeply-held beliefs. It’s an extremely effective way of creating an immediate mindset of acceptance and openness, which, in turn, shapes the way they relate to those in need.
The experienced peacebuilders within the URI network know that violent conflict doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s predicted by exactly the kind of disregard for human rights that has happened along the US borders. This isn’t just about the injustice of the present moment - it's also fueling future generations of discord and distress.
How can these situations be defused? How can these kinds of scars be healed? In the present rhetoric, politicians would have us believe that peace is impossible. We are being turned against each other. We are being divided into smaller and more isolated social groups. We are being convinced, through fear of the other, to turn our backs on our human sisters and brothers. And worse: we are being paralyzed by rage.
We are disempowered when we sit alone, glued to our news screens, rather than stepping out into our communities and responding with compassionate action.
The peacebuilders of the URI network refuse to be distracted by artificial divisions. URI’s member groups have been responding to the plight of refugee families since its founding. “What we do that no one else does,” explains Executive Director Victor Kazanjian, “is we are connecting people to each other. We are building sustainable relationships, building the conditions for peace, at a time when we're being told that's impossible.” Yet one look at URI’s webpage shows thousands of examples all over the world proving that peace is, indeed, achievable.
It’s too easy to become paralyzed by anger or numbed by fear. Spring into action instead. Look to the peacebuilders who are making a difference in so many ways, around the planet, at this very moment, and feel empowered to make a difference. In the words of URI's Charter calls us to 'unite in responsible cooperative action to bring the wisdom and values of our religions, spiritual expressions and indigenous traditions to bear on the…social challenges facing our Earth community.”