On the surface, it wouldn’t appear that the earthquake in Nepal, the death of a black man while in police custody in Baltimore and the Syrian refugee crisis have any similarities or connection. Get beneath the surface and you’ll discover at least several similarities: all three are disasters, they’ve caused wide-spread misery for the people directly affected, and much needs to be done to make people whole again.
The death toll in the April 25 earthquake has risen to more than 7,000 people, with 14,300 injured and 130,000 houses destroyed. More than 3 million people are in need of food aid and help can’t arrive fast enough in a country unprepared for a 7.8-magnitude quake.
Twenty-five-year-old Freddie Gray’s death, a week following his April 12 arrest, led to rioting in the streets of Baltimore, destruction of property, the closing of schools for a day and growing animosity between the haves and the have-nots. Six police officers have been arrested in connection with Gray’s death on charges ranging from assault to murder. While protestors approve, a lawyer hired by the police union called the swift decision to prosecute “an egregious rush to judgment.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees languish inside and outside of refugee camps, the result of four years of civil unrest in their country. A reporter for the “Daily Beast” visited one of the refugee camps, in Syria, and described what sounds like a nightmare. The smell of feces permeates the air and ditches carry foul water. Children in this camp are lucky enough to go to school in tents, but you have to wonder what goes through their minds living in a war zone.
Many more refugee children have no hope for education and no clue whether they’ll ever be able to go home. In a statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council on March 17, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, permanent observer of the Holy See to the UN in Geneva, expressed alarm over what he fears may become the lost generation. He reported that more than 1.5 million Syrian students in refugee camps no longer receive an education. Furthermore, the separation of family members destabilizes society and breaks down its basic social unit.
In each of these places that misery has visited, the cry of the poor, disenfranchised and displaced reaches out to us, brothers and sisters in the family of God.
So how do we respond? Do we send money to our favorite charity and just hope the problems go away ASAP? Or if we don’t have the funds, do we simply say a prayer and forget about the people of Nepal, Baltimore, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East once they leave the news cycle?
Catholic teaching says we have a moral obligation to ensure that people’s basic needs are met, that they are treated with dignity and with the opportunity to thrive and flourish wherever they live in our global village.
In Nepal, for instance, that means responding to emergency needs. “People urgently need basic essentials,” Bishop Martin Amos says in an appeal to the Davenport Diocese’s parishes (see Page 3). “Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is partnering with Caritas Nepal to target 75,000 people affected by the Nepal Earthquake to supply them with emergency shelter materials, blankets, water treatment and hygiene kits. CRS and Caritas Nepal will continue to identify the most pressing needs in the hardest hit districts.…”
The situation in Baltimore calls for systemic change. Pax Christi USA says in a statement released April 30 that long-time “disregard for the dignity of communities made poor by unjust systems, a blatant disregard for the quarter of the city’s population living below the poverty level, inferior schools and polarized relations with police contributed to the tension, destruction, violence and looting in Baltimore.
Pax Christi emphasized that it does not condone violence; rather, it calls for Catholics and other people of good will to collaborate with grassroots organizations in Baltimore to work for nonviolent, systematic change. Injustice isn’t exclusive to Baltimore. It happens here in Iowa and all states. It would be good for all of us to examine our consciences to see how we exclude or marginalize others.
Like the Nepal and Baltimore crises, the Syrian refugee crisis has no quick-fix solutions. For the long haul, we ought to begin with daily prayer on behalf of those suffering from natural or human-made disasters. We ought to contribute financially, within our means, to immediate needs and to projects like “Basmeh & Zeitooneh” (a smile and an olive), an organization that provides income-generating skills training, psychological support, human rights courses and education for Syrian and Palestinian refugees and for Lebanese.
We ought to advocate for justice in every space on earth, including our own.