Looking at refugees not as a technical problem but as a human experience

Looking at refugees not as a technical problem but as a human experience
The girls (17 and 20) on their trip from Istanbul to Sweden

The Fayez girls (17 and 20) on their trip from Istanbul to Sweden


Tibet school child [Photo: Lynda Howland]

This week my good friends Judy Bello and Lynda Howland spoke at a dinner at SUNY Geneseo to raise awareness and funds for Syrian refugees. Below is their account both of the trip and the work done on college campuses by Peace Action New York State to help us see Syrian and all refugees not as a technical problem but as a human experience.

As a college teacher working with students at Keuka and Nazareth, I–like Judy and Lynda–do not at all view these young people as naive idealists whose commitment will end at graduation.  Many of them, like Judy and Lynda, will become lifetime activists for social justice.


Julie Everitt and Carol Kramer, Washington, D.C.


10/13/15 Pittsford, NY

If you have any read print newspapers in the last decades, you have seen Lynda’s eloquent and passionate Letters-to-the-Editor. You also met her in From Rochester to Nepal with love. Aiding earthquake victims with your help

You met Judy in A pilgrimage of peace from Palmyra to Pittsford and you can find her most Sundays at the long vigil for peace on the corner of East and Goodman  

This year, Peace Action New York State (PANYS) has focused on building strong student chapters. And doing a great job.  Judy Bello has had several opportunities to meet these young people who just might be the next generation of  dedicated activists. In September, Judy was invited to speak by the Western New York Peace Center at Canisius College in Buffalo.  The subject was the war in Syria, a tough one for most Americans to wrap their minds around.  Later–first at Hobart William Smith in Geneva and just this week at SUNY Geneseo–Judy was invited by PANYS to give some background on the recent flood of refugees fleeing into Europe.


Refugee tents, Sweden


It is really great that in these difficult times young people are making the effort to understand the problems of others in countries burdened with war and famine and seemingly endless causes of suffering.  It is especially challenging now with complex wars ongoing and limited or distorted news coverage clouding our understanding of the issues.  All the better that their interest is driven by compassion.


Syrian Refugees

The chapter of PANYS at SUNY Geneseo arranged a dinner as a benefit for UNHCR  (the United Nations High Council on Refugees).  We wondered how many students had the money to attend a fund raiser, but the turnout was pretty good.  Along with about 40 students were half a dozen activists from the local antiwar community.  The  organizers earned several hundred dollars for the cause– not bad for a student fundraiser at a State University.

Judy talks about the issues that difficult to hear.  She thinks these youths, and many others, already know that something is missing, something is wrong with the picture they have been provided.  But it’s hard to hear the extent to  which US foreign policy and the decisions made by our own government make a critical contribution to the suffering of the people in the Middle East.  Most of these young people haven’t heard it clearly stated before.

The students want to help.   As Americans, we are a can-do people and a good hearted people. But the cold realities justifying the destruction of a secular, multiethnic, religiously tolerant society and the deaths of hundred hundreds of thousands of people with millions more losing their homes and jobs over oil pipelines and political power games are hard to absorb.  Who could do such a thing?  Governments, like corporations, outsource costs.  That means they don’t take responsibility for the consequences of their actions.   We, the people have to do it.  Judy never knows how people are going to respond to this message, but these students give her hope for the future.

girls being interviewed by Greek TV

The Fayez girls being interviewed by Greek TV

And then there is the visceral pain when you hear the story of an individual’s refugee’s pain. Lynda Howland told the story of a Syrian family consisting of Fayez, his wife and four daughters, that she befriended and later adopted,  as the  war there, little by little, took away everything they had as they faced a seemingly endless series of barriers before opportunities to start a new life began to emerge for them.   About a month ago, the two eldest daughters (ages 17 and  20) used smugglers to take them by boat from Istanbul (where they had fled earlier) to the island of Lesbo in Greece, and on across Europe to Sweden. In Sweden, where their father already has refugee status, they were given asylum.

fayez family

The Fayez family years ago in Syria when Lynda first met them

Fayez’ wife and two younger daughters remain in Istanbul, as they don’t have the financial ability pay for the same  journey.  Lynda corresponds with Fayez and his wife regularly, following their journey in search of a better life and a future for their children.   Every day, and every step of the way, these people, like so many of the displaced people we call refugees yearn for the wars to end, for a chance to go home, and for life to go on as it was before.


Fayez girls and other refugees staying strong

The politicians are looking at the refugees as a technical problem.  To solve the problem, we need to see it through the  eyes of those who are suffering, as a human problem, and to take responsibility for our part in creating it.  Another way  is possible.  But it requires more than resistance.  It requires intelligence and determination and compassion.  I want to honor these students for having the compassion to ask what is going on to cause so much suffering in the world, and the
courage to hear the answer.

About The Author


Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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