What do a professional handyman in California, a college campus church worker in Ohio and a local politician in Virginia have in common?
They represent the countless Americans finding ways to help Syrian and Iraqi refugees, either newly arrived in the U.S. or still struggling overseas.
“This isn’t just about what I can do as president,” said President Obama. “Every single one of us — from citizens to [nongovernmental organizations] — can help refugees find safe haven.”
A labor of love
Doug Walton’s motivation for inviting Syrian refugee Mohammed Refai to live with him and his three roommates in Toledo, Ohio, might surprise you.
“My immediate answer just sounds so cliche, but I think the motive is love,” said Walton, a church worker at a local college campus. “I was told he’s coming and that I have an opportunity to help him out.”
Shortly after Refai moved in, Walton took his new Syrian friend to a Middle Eastern supermarket.
“And he just runs up to the counter and starts speaking in Arabic. And the guy’s talking back to him in Arabic,” Walton said. “And … his whole countenance just changed. He’s like, oh, my gosh, what a relief.”
Refai got much more than the opportunity to speak Arabic; he was offered and accepted a job to work at the supermarket. His American housemates are learning about Middle Eastern customs and food from Refai, and now even know a little Arabic. Walton and Refai call each other “habibi,” which means “my friend.”
Volunteer … on the other side of the world
When professional handyman Bob Maukovich of Garden Grove, California, saw images of men, women and children flooding into Europe, he volunteered for the Red Cross and headed to Serbia.
“They don’t want to be killed in a war. They don’t want to be part of the fighting, so they decide to leave. Buses after buses after buses,” Maukovich said.
For a month, the handyman distributed food and supplies along the Croatian-Serbian border and says he was touched by the spirit of the people he met during their time of hardship.
In a local television interview after his trip to Europe, Maukovich urged others to take action: “What I want to help say to people who are watching is do something for others instead of just thinking [about] yourself.”
Local leaders go global
Politicians in Virginia are doing their part by holding a regionwide coat and blanket drive for refugees from Syria and Iraq. The effort spans four counties and in the past two years has collected over 40,000 blankets and coats.
The project launched after local Virginia officials visited a refugee camp in Turkey and were told residents were in urgent need of blankets to keep warm. They returned home, appealed to nonprofit organizations and religious groups, and mobilized local volunteers. The donations will be delivered free of charge by local and international transport companies.
“What these people really want, frankly, is just to go home,” said Robert Lazaro, a former mayor whose visit to Turkey two years ago inspired the project. They just want to go back to their families and their lives … but you do what you can.”
‘A moral responsibility’
The United States has pledged to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016 and has increased the overall number of refugees it will welcome from 70,000 to 100,000 over the next two years. “We have a moral responsibility to do what we can for families forced from their homes,” President Obama said.
It’s all part of America’s history as a nation of immigrants, and as a leader in accepting the world’s most vulnerable refugees. Through partnerships with nine local resettlement agencies that work in communities and cities across the nation, the U.S. has welcomed more than 650,000 refugees in the last decade, and more than 3 million refugees since 1975.