There’s a saying: “Statistics are human beings with the tears dried off. As somebody who is responsible for building empathy for people forced to flee their homes, I really don’t like statistics,” Melissa Fleming, chief spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told the Global Health NOW LIVE at Stanford University gathering last night.
Fleming shared a slide featuring just one number: 29,000. That represents the number of people who will flee today … close the door to their home without perhaps ever getting the chance to return.
The statistics aren’t improving. Fleming said UNHCR will soon release 2019’s count of the global refugee population—expected to be many more than last year’s nearly 70 million people worldwide. It shows, she said, that “we’re moving backward, it seems, in terms of stopping the wars that are driving so many people from their home and we’re doing dangerously little to help the victims and the countries that help them.”
Introducing Fleming as the keynote, Michele Barry, MD, director of the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health, noted that there is "No more vulnerable population than refugees," setting the tone for a thoughtful discussion on how universities can play a strong role in improving conditions for refugees around the world.
Fleming shared a photo of a Syrian refugee boy, standing by a missile amid rubble, who told her: “This missile killed my father." She added: “I think we all have to ask ourselves: Do we feel empathy when we see photos of refugees—or does psychic numbing set in?" Her new book, “A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee's Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival,” demonstrates the power of personal narratives to awaken empathy.
She urged the audience to think about all the reasons people should care, despite the current climate of the politics of fear overtaking the politics of compassion. It comes down to how we treat the uprooted, she concluded. “If we leave them uneducated we delay the return of peace and prosperity.”
But there was no shortage of empathy in the room last night.
Moderator Paul Costello, Stanford School of Medicine Senior Communications Strategist in turn asked a panel of refugee experts gathered for the event why they care about the refugee crises.
For Jacob Atem, postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health and one of the Lost Boys of South Sudan, it’s because he knows firsthand what it’s like to be a refugee. He had no choice but to march, as a child, for 3 months to Ethiopia’s border—worrying the whole way that the militia could be following.
Somewhere, he said, “I know somebody somewhere is like I was then. If I don’t speak out who will?”
Costello asked panelist Anne Richard, the former assistant secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration, US State Department, what kind of message it sent to the world, our friends, our enemies, when US President Trump said last week “We’re full”—unable to take in more refugees.
“I think it sends a bad message and sets a bad example to populist governments in Europe … for me it’s heartbreaking because I know how much the US example is paid attention to overseas. I’m very concerned that we are ignoring our responsibilities to provide a sanctuary, to give refugees a hearing—and by the fact this is jettisoned without a vote of Congress, or a national debate about our character,” she said.
Paul Spiegel, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health, agreed that with the rise of populism it’s more important than ever to speak out now.
Asked why he transitioned to university life after years as a doctor providing care to refugees and working for UNHCR, Spiegel said that at UNHCR, he realized the need for better data and research to inform decision making with limited resources. He also hopes to nurturing the future humanitarians of the world—especially students from low- and middle-income countries.
Panelist Leila Toplic, who leads NetHope’s Emerging Technologies Working Group, sees unique opportunities for universities to help refugees through technology—specifically online learning. Universities, she said, can give refugees more access to online learning—but first it is essential that they listen to refugees to better understand their needs.
Capping off an evening of thoughtful discussion, UNHCR goodwill ambassador Emtithal Mahmoud delivered a riveting spoken-word performance.
Mahmoud’s poetry draws on her experiences as a child caught in the genocide in Darfur—describing what it was like to be 7 years old, hiding under the bed, hoping that her mother would come home.
She also spoke to the importance of documenting tragedies. “Bodies speak; bones speak,” she said.
“When we fail to preserve life we still can succeed in making sure that’s not erased."
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