Catholic Relief Services was founded as War Relief Services in 1943 initially to help refugees from the cataclysm that was World War II. The unprecedented devastation of that war left tens of millions dead and even more homeless and seeking shelter and safety. The relief and recovery efforts supported by the Catholic community in the United States lasted for years.
World War II lived up to its name as its devastation was genuinely worldwide. It affected my parents who fled Japanese-occupied Hong Kong where I grew up. Perhaps it affected your family as well. When it ended with nuclear horror, there was a firm commitment to ensure that the world would never see anything like it again.
Out of that came the United Nations, a forum built on the hope that words would be an alternative to weapons. In recognition of the tens of millions who had become war refugees, this new body included the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to help protect the rights of people forced from their homelands, giving them aid and upholding their dignity. In the decades since World War II, CRS has often worked with UNHCR to help refugee populations.
And now the UNHCR has issued a report with a stunning statistic: Today some 60 million people have been forced from their homes by war and persecution. That is one in every 122 people in God’s family. It is the highest number since the end of World War II and may even be more than were displaced by that war. It includes both refugees—those who have crossed into another country—and those forced to flee their homes but who remain in their native land, known as internally displaced people, or IDPs.
This number is astonishing. We must pray for peace and justice to prevail so that refugees and displaced people can return to their homes. Moreover, we must be the hands of God in shaping a lasting peace.
But even as we do that, we must recognize our duty to help those who have fled. We take our inspiration from Pope Francis who, not long after becoming our Holy Father, journeyed to the Italian island of Lampedusa, the destination for so many refugees. He mourned the victims of a ship’s sinking and said Mass with the migrants. So many of those crossing the Mediterranean are trying to escape violent conflict—in the Middle East, in Africa and elsewhere.
Pope Francis’ message is the same one he will soon bring to the United States and to the World Meeting of Families: that refugees are also sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. They are seeking to preserve their lives and their families, and to live in a way that respects their dignity.
Because of your generosity, CRS is able to help them. I saw this on a recent trip to Ukraine, where some 1.5 million IDPs are now living. Working with our partner Caritas Ukraine, we are providing tens of thousands of displaced people with emergency supplies.
In northern Iraq, where many who have fled the Islamic State have crowded into unfinished buildings, we put in windows and doors to keep out the cold, and put up walls to provide some privacy. We welcome children into child support centers, where they can play, learn and find some normalcy in their chaotic lives. We give grocery vouchers to families, whose breadwinners only months ago had good jobs to support their families but who now struggle daily to survive.
There are families like these in many other countries—from Somalia to South Sudan, Jordan to Central African Republic, Colombia to Burundi: people forced to flee their homes with only the clothes on their backs or the few possessions they can carry.
One thing we observe is how many people are welcomed by poorer countries, while wealthier ones turn them away. All of us must listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 25: that we should feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked and—most relevant to our understanding of the current refugee crises—welcome the stranger.
“Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me,” Jesus says.
Sixty million “strangers,”—these “least” brothers, sisters and children, forced from their homes and seeking our help. Let us answer their pleas.
May blessings overflow.
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo
President & CEO
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