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Syrian refugees need our help

PinneoThe typical route Syrian refugees take across the Aegean Sea from the Turkish coast to the Greek island of Chios is four nautical miles. To put that into terms we can all relate to, it’s about the length of the Astoria Bridge across the Columbia River.

For refugee families, the Aegean crossing usually takes place in the dead of night and can cost $1,500 per person — a sum paid to a human trafficker who provides a berth on an overcrowded rubber raft, a life jacket and a compass heading. The fittest male is directed to man the outboard motor.

It’s a decision borne of desperation that can cost them their lives.

Call it auspicious timing, but I had the opportunity to spend the week before Thanksgiving staying with refugees in Greece and Lebanon and Lebanon. And while I returned thankful to live amidst peace and plenty, I came home doubly convinced how desperate the situation remains — and how remarkable these people are.

As CEO of Medical Teams International, we have the privilege of working directly with partners on the ground in many parts of the world, including Chios and Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley where one million Syrians remain in a seemingly endless holding pattern. Two of our partners, International Orthodox Christian Charities and Apostoli, are working around the clock in Greece to address the suffering. One of the ways they are helping is by distributing hygiene kits that Medical Teams’ volunteers have assembled, filled with personal necessities including shampoo, toilet paper, diapers and more. Families arrive with little more than the shirts on their backs, so everyday items are greatly appreciated.

Many of the families are like the one led by my new friend, Abou Bassel. He and his wife, along with their seven children, enjoyed a middle-class life in Syria until the pressures of war and terrorism became untenable. They left and ended up in the Beqaa Valley, where they settled in a makeshift community with thousands of other families, and made plans to return home one day. When that hope was lost, they gave their savings to their eldest son — a responsible, 24-year-old Syrian who fits the “profile” some so fear — to make the crossing and work his way north to Scandinavia. He arrived last month, and his responsibility is now to finish his education, get a job and send for his family.

This young man is his family’s last, best hope.

It’s important to remember that Abou Bassel and his family didn’t choose to be refugees — it was violently thrust upon them. More than 11 million Syrians — including five million children — have fled their homes to escape the violence and create new lives. Living conditions in the settlements are bad and deteriorating dramatically, forcing refugees to adopt extreme measures to cope, including returning to the war zone they fled, or risking their lives crossing to Europe.

Tragically, since the death of young Aylan Kurdi, the little boy whose photograph captured world attention, dozens more children have drowned attempting to get to Europe.

And piling tragedy upon tragedy, the bloodshed and murders in Paris have complicated the dialogue even further, fanning the fires of exaggerated fears, but also compelling us to face the situation head on.

In doing so, we must remember our distinct American tradition to welcome those in need, especially refugees. We must not allow our critically important attention to national security to become an excuse for not maintaining an open-armed posture to legitimate refuges — some of whom are victims of atrocities most of us can only imagine. We can and should do both.

In the midst of such overwhelming struggle, I am heartened to know there are ways people who care can respond. Many non-governmental organizations, including Medical Teams and others from the Pacific Northwest, are on the ground providing support.

In this season of celebration and goodwill, we can all help by logging on, donating and knowing that assistance is on its way to help our global neighbors like Abou Bassel and his family.

Jeff Pinneo is CEO of Medical Teams International, a Tigard nonprofit that provides medical supplies and assistance to disaster sites around the globe. Volunteers and staff in their Tigard office are accepting donations to distribute personal hygiene kits for Syrian refugees.