Photo: Wynn Flaten in the Kurdish region of Iraq with Shamo, a refugee who escaped from the mountains of Sinjar and receiving aid.
By Shane Scott —
When people think of refugees, a reoccurring thought, especially since the attacks in Paris, is wondering what hazardous souls lurk among the masses. But this thought is nothing new for the millions of people who have fled and continue to flee their homes due to politically and religiously fueled chaos. For them, the potential dangers are not only limited to senseless acts of terrorism, but lost opportunities for education, employment, starvation, and persecution. These aren’t single moments of destitution–for refugees, these occurrences come daily.
Unless you’ve gone through it, understanding the life of someone who has been forced to flee to safety is difficult to do. In order to appreciate the struggle of a refugee, it really takes experiencing things for oneself. Though he doesn’t face situations as difficult as those he’s witnessed through his work, World Vision Syria Crisis Response Director, Wynn Flaten witnesses daily testaments of just how much a refugee goes through in order to survive. The following is an interview I was fortunate to have with him, in order to better understand the struggle many people in the world have been forced to face.
Religio Magazine: What is your involvement with Syrian refugees, as a Crisis Response Director?
Wynn Flaten: We are working in Lebanon, Jordan, Southern Turkey, Northern Syria and Iraq. I oversee the work related to the Syria Crisis that World Vision is doing here.
As a summary of the type of work we do, it’s important to emphasize that most of the refugees are people who have crossed international borders; displaced people; those who have had to flee to other locations in their own country and don’t live in formal refugee camps. Rather, they are living in cities and communities, pushing demand for infrastructure and services beyond local authorities’ ability to cope.
One major aspect of our work is WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene). We work with local authorities and camp managers to expand or rehabilitate municipal and community water systems, as most places don’t have water systems that can keep up with their use. We bring in generators and diesels to pump water or work with local councils to rehabilitate these systems. We also support municipal sanitation and garbage collection, as well as hygiene and sanitation among individual families. Currently there are approximately 700,000 to 1.2 million people who are benefiting from this on a monthly basis.
Another major undertaking is economic support, as none of the host countries currently allow refugees to work legally, though many do work in the underground economy–often it being children. We are part of a large effort to provide material or monetary support through vouchers or cash to help meet basic living costs. The number of people supported through this activity varies greatly but can reach up to 300,000 in a month.
Our third main area of work focuses specifically on children and their families, with priority for education and protection to address risks of trafficking, abuse, child labor, and uncertain legal status. The education system is already over stretched in these countries amongst their own nationals so we also work on remedial education for those who cannot attend school. We have child-friendly spaces to support children who have been emotionally affected by the conflict, where they enjoy a protective and supportive environment and learning opportunities. As part of this we also work with communities to minimize the risk of exploitation of children. Because this is more focused on individuals over a longer time frame, the number of people we reach is much smaller than with the WASH and economic support activities.
RM: Can you share some experiences from the frontline?
WF: In October, I went to Austria for meetings. On my days off I decided to track where the refugees there were transferring to. I spent two days visiting facilities where refugees were congregating. The first day, I visited two train stations in Vienna. In the West Train Station (Westbahnhoff), there were only a few refugees, and staff from an agency explained that they assisted with material support, and then the refugees would be sent off on trains heading to Germany. In the Main Train Station (Hauptbahnhoff) there were approximately 500 refugees including men, women and children–most of them families traveling together. The assistance with food, clothing, logistics, etc was staffed exclusively by volunteers and relied on donations of goods. The situation was quite chaotic but there was a strong commitment among volunteers to continue assisting the refugees. Again, transport toward Germany would be arranged for them.
The second day I went down to the village of Spielfeld on the Austria-Slovenian border. There were approximately 4,500 refugees that day. The Austrian police were managing the gate that allowed people to move from Slovenia into a holding area on the Austrian side of the border. Through Arabic and Persian translators they asked people to stay calm, assuring them that all would be allowed to pass. But after so many days traveling and being so close to Austria, patience was in short supply and people pushed to get through the gate in small bunches of 10 to 20. Inevitably some families were separated, and there were frequent shouts of panic by family members trying to convince police to let them reunite. A few people collapsed, others panicked, shouting for family members who had not yet gotten through the gate. In the holding area people could wait until their family members joined them and would then be provided food and other essential supplies by the Austrians. Once they had finished in the holding area, the government had a long line of buses waiting to take the people to train stations for their onward journey to Germany and other parts of Europe.
Because of the long wait at the gate, some people climbed over a low fence and sat among trees to rest, though that area was still in Slovenia. Many of these were families, and I had the opportunity to speak with a few. I don’t speak Arabic but two young men from northern Syria knew some English and explained they had been traveling for 20 days, having escaped the bombardment of their cities.Both of them were college graduates, engineers if I recall correctly. As with most of the people, they were hoping to go to Germany or possibly Sweden.
I also had the opportunity to speak with two Afghan families. I speak some Persian, and learned that they had left Kunduz, a city in Northern Afghanistan that I have visited several times. Kunduz city was briefly taken over by the Taliban with devastating effect. Though the Taliban were driven out of Kunduz city, they have a strong presence in the surrounding countryside. The family had three small children and asked if I would take the youngest and hold it if they handed her over the fence. This is a moment when neither “yes” nor “no” is sufficient, a fence that divides supersedes any intention of words. I couldn’t take the baby but reassured them that they would get through the gate that day if they waited. Heartbreaking.
RM: Can you share any religious struggles you’ve witnessed?
WF: About 15 months ago, I was in the Kurdish Region of Iraq for the first time, around Sept. 2014. I met with the Archbishop of the Chaldean church who said they had some refugees in the city of Koya that needed assistance. There were 39 families in one room, the church banquet hall. They had come from areas in northern Iraq that had historically been Christian.
This was after minorities, especially Yazidis and Christians fled the fighting that spilled over from Syria. [In total,] I met a group of approximately 150 Christian families that were being housed in church facilities in Koya after fleeing from the cities of Mosul and Qaraqosh. Each family was allocated a very small area to stay in. The greatest immediate need seemed to be water and sanitation facilities, so we built very nice showers and toilets that made life much easier for them. I was told that prior to Aug. 2014, there were approximately 10,000 Christians in the Kurdish Region, but despite the influx of at least 80,000 Christians from Mosul and Qaraqosh, the local churches were exceptional in providing support and assistance to the new arrivals.
I was there in Oct. 2015 and thought ‘I’m gonna go see what happened.’ The church caretaker met me and took me in the room and said, ‘Everybody is gone.’
He told me some of them had gone to Erbil, the capital city of the Kurdish Regional Government, and others had left for Jordan or Lebanon in hopes of moving on to other countries. The concerns that had been expressed in 2014 about not being able to return home were proving prophetic–they would wait no longer.
Christians have been a part of the social fabric in this part of the world for 2,000 years, but that is now being torn apart and the Christians will increasingly question how they will fit in the future. With prospects looking bleak, many feel they have no choice but to leave. We cannot know how this will develop until there is peace so people can have a better idea what the future holds.
RM: How is the quality of life in refugee camps? Is there any intermingling with local communities?
WF: Let me clarify that most refugees do not live in camps but have to make their own living arrangements, which is a huge burden for them. In Lebanon there are no formal refugee camps for the more than 1 million Syrian refugees. In Jordan, there are two main refugee camps: Za’atari with approximately 80,000 inhabitants and Azraq with 15,000 to 20,000, which means that more than 500,000 Syrians live in communities among Jordanians. In Turkey, approximately 10 percent to percent of the more than 2 million registered Syrian refugees live in camps set up and managed by the government of Turkey with a full range of services catering specifically to the needs of Syrians. This means that approximately 3.4 million Syrian refugees in these countries live in host communities, and what started as compassion is evolving into frustration as the conflict continues.
Jordanians and Lebanese, who share similar cultures and language with Syrians but have small populations and economies, see rent and price of goods and commodities rising, increasing competition for jobs as Syrians work in the informal labor sector, and an increasing strain on public services such as education, water, health, etc. These countries’ previous experience with the influx of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, many of whom have never left, understandably make them apprehensive about prospects for the future. The circumstances in Turkey are different in that, unlike Jordan and Lebanon, the culture and language differences are much greater for the Syrians, so integrating into local society can be more difficult, though, with a population of 75 million, Turkey would find it easier to absorb more Syrians.
RM: What are some of the struggles that refugees go through in daily living?
WF: They are very low income. Refugees can’t work legally, so they can’t make ends meet and it’s been a conflict that has been ongoing for some time now. So there’s funding that provides a safety net but when that funding drops off, so does the support for families. Our field staff know a number of families who send their children off to work because they can work in underground labor – they work for a pittance.
[Another daily issue is education] because the longer this conflict [in Syria] continues, the harder it will be to maintain education programs. The Lebanese government (for example), needs to look after the welfare of the Lebanese citizens, [but] there are more school age Syrian refugee children in Lebanon than Lebanese children in school. How do you look after the welfare of children that aren’t supposed to be here? It’s pretty complicated.
RM: How does your faith play a role in your work, and your goals and hopes?
WF: None of us have a choice in which country we are born or who our parents are, but society holds us accountable for that over which we have no control. As a Christian, I believe God has gone through the effort of creating each one of us and we have to look at people as humans and treat them with kindness and understanding.
For me, all of this has a human face. In the 20th Century, the United States had three great adversaries: Germany, Japan and the former Soviet Union. I’ve lived in all three places and found that by and large people want the same as us–security, jobs and education for their children. In Jeremiah chapter 29, we are reminded about the importance of having a future and hope, and I believe our task is to support people in their efforts to realize that.