It is easy to feel helpless in the face of a complex, global issue such as the plight of refugees. It may seem that only those with political power have the means to act. However, the core of JGI and JGI’s Roots & Shoots philosophy is that every individual has the power to do something, no matter who they are and no matter how complex problem. With news reports inciting fear around asylum seekers, it’s important to get the facts and to understand the entire issue while finding ways to take positive action.

What’s going on?

68.5 million people (the highest level since WWII) are forcibly displaced from their homes right now around the world. This is no new development – over the course of history and all over the globe, people have been forced to leave their homes in order to save their lives from political, economic, religious and/or environmental struggles. Far from a simple explanation, the causes of forced displacement are politically and socially complex, as are the policies that seek to address the problem. Some important definitions include refugees, who are people forced to flee their home country because of persecution, war and/or violence, and internally displaced people, who are people forced to leave their home but still reside in their country.

Beginning in 2015, the countries of Turkey, Lebanon and many in Europe, have been the sought out refuge for people fleeing war in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq (among other countries). European governments attempted various strategies over the past three years to address this humanitarian crisis. However, with great changes came fears about safety and identity, which led to closed borders and continued suffering to those who had already been through so much. Today, thousands of asylum seekers from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua are seeking refuge in Mexico and elsewhere as they flee extreme poverty, political unrest and violence.

What is important to remember in all of this is that millions risk their lives crossing seas like the Aegean to find safety from war and oppression, and entire families risk kidnapping, death, starvation and arrest as they cross into Mexico and other places around the world. Dr. Jane herself wrote a powerful letter on World Refugee Day and regularly uses her platform to discuss the need for action and empathy. Her letter moves past the debates around the refugee crisis, and instead emphasises getting to see and know the real people who are hurting and suffering. Her words inspire deeper understanding, so that we can open our hearts to people who need to be seen, heard and given refuge. It is only when we feel compassion may we enact meaningful action.

“The fact that they are willing to risk not only their own lives, but those of their children, speaks to the sheer desperation of so many of them. Can you imagine being in that situation? Pause for a moment and think about it. Can you imagine it?”

-Dr. Jane Goodall

Reasons for Hope

Despite the challenges, there are many reasons for hope. Right away there are always people diving in to help. JGI-Germany, with many others, welcomed incoming refugees warmly at the Munich railway station in 2015 where plush toy animals were given to the young refugee children. Further projects sought to provide the incoming people with shelter, language lessons, and help adjusting to their new life. Similarly, in Greece, people were moved by the stories that the refugees told of their experiences. Refugee facilities are welcome refugees as they come, and countless organisations work to provide basic needs and opportunities for social integration. Roots & Shoots Greece continues to help in this worsening crisis, and Dr. Goodall was able to meet with volunteers helping refugees during her last visit to the country – she will be visiting again this December. In Mexico, restaurant owners are providing food, and local government officials have been providing shelters and other assistance.

What Can You Do?

Even from far away, we still have the ability to make a difference. One of the most powerful acts we can do is to stay informed on the issue and to voice our support for policies and organisations that seek to provide the necessary aid to refugees. You can also participate in a Roots & Shoots One-Click campaign, join the Roots & Shoots Facebook group ‘Peace & Conflict’ to share stories and ideas, and create your own Roots & Shoots project to support refugees (Here’s one great example).

Earlier this year, I was able to work with a nonprofit in Thessaloniki, Greece, to help them better understand the needs of the refugees in the area. One man who was sitting under a tree with his young son told us of his journey and how he was trying to reunite his separated family. Looking at the young boy next to him playing with twigs in the dirt, I saw myself. It hadn’t been long ago since I was a little kid playing outside with sticks. I thought of how my own life was so very different than his life, but despite this we were not at all different people. It could have very easily been me in his position, but it wasn’t.

With Jane as an example, we must always remember to share stories and take action. Each of us can and must inspire empathy for all living beings. As Dr. Goodall often says, “Only when our clever brain and our human heart work together in harmony can we achieve our true potential.”