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Understanding the Syrian refugee crisis with Karen AbuZayd of the Middle East Policy Council board

The process of addressing situations of displaced persons and refugees takes a lot of work: innovation, adaptability and an overwhelming amount of research.

Karen AbuZayd of the board of the Middle East Policy Council took the time to discuss her career with both United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees and the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and her decades of experience working with refugees throughout the world as it pertains to the current crisis in Syria.

Back in early 2011, the dark cloud of the Syrian refugee crisis was just beginning to emerge. Just five years later, judging from the constant headlines desperately calling for action over the past six months, it appears we are in the eye of the storm.

“It was more unusual,” AbuZayd said.

After graduating with a degree in nursing from DePauw University and an interest in the Middle East, AbuZayd began taking night classes at Roosevelt University in Chicago to initiate a shift in her career. AbuZayd went on to pursue a master’s in Islamic Studies at McGill University in Montreal. While at McGill, AbuZayd met her husband, a Sudanese man who would join her in learning the realities refugees in protracted crises faced.

After teaching in Sudan After teaching at Makerere University in Uganda, in the early ‘80s where AbuZayd said she found herself in a position to put “politics to work,” the couple was called back to Sudan, with AbuZayd’s husband as secretary general and later vice chancellor at the new University of Juba in South Sudan. AbuZayd followed him to join the university teaching political science and Middle East politics.

After two years there, she spent the summer volunteering to help out at UNHCR, where she worked to send Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees to American University in Cairo.

At this point, Sudan itself, mainly because of famine, was host to a million refugees who had made their way out of Chad, Ethiopia, Eritrea and returnees from Uganda and into Uganda.

From Sudan, AbuZayd moved to Namibia for the repatriation, followed by Sierra Leone for the Liberian influx, and afterward to cover Kenya/Somali and the Horn of Africa from Geneva Headquarters before she went to Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, which erupted in the early ‘90s.

In total, AbuZayd served with the UNHCR for 20 years, traveling across Africa to address human displacement throughout the continent.

As she worked her way up the ranks with UNHCR through the years, she was assigned to many prestigious posts in Washington and Geneva prior to her retirement in 2010.

But AbuZayd was not done quite yet.

In 2011, AbuZayd re-emerged when she was asked to become a commissioner on the U.N. Human Rights Council’s mandated Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights Violations and Abuses, which she continued to work on until January 2016, when she became the special advisor to the secretary general on the Global Summit for Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants.

Throughout her extensive work with the U.N., AbuZayd has seen firsthand the inherent challenges of refugee work.

“In the midst of conflict, it is very difficult,” AbuZayd explained. “We have no defense. People are risking their lives there, and we have to pull out if it gets violent.”

The 10th Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, presented at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva in September 2015, “emphasizes the need for concerted and sustained international action…to end the violence and to stop the rampancy of war crimes and grave violations of human rights.”

As AbuZayd explained, this is a delicate balance for the U.N. to maintain.

However, this is only the beginning of delicate balances caused by the refugee crisis. Here in the United States, the resettlement of Syrian refugees has created a harsh schism between the federal government and many state governments – Tennessee included.

Despite the United States’ capacity to resettle a great deal more refugees, statistics indicate only 10,000 refugees were resettled within the United States. That number pales in comparison to other countries, who though less able, took over double or even 16 times as many refugees.

The senate of the Tennessee General Assembly passed a resolution in early 2016 that would allow the state’s attorney general to sue the federal government and halt refugee resettlement in the state of Tennessee.

But Tennessee is not alone: more than half of U.S. state governors have spoken out against allowing refugee resettlement since the terrorist attack in Paris in November.

However, many Tennesseans are still eager to support the refugees in any way they can.

AbuZayd likes to emphasize the importance of seeking out credible organizations to donate to, particularly those directly out of the UN such as UNHCR.

In addition, it is important for citizens to understand how they can influence both local and national governments, as well as volunteering and helping resettlement agencies like the Nashville International Center for Empowerment that operate in their own towns and cities.

Regardless of the opinions surrounding resettlement, it is indisputable that the refugees both near and far need help. UNHCR and leaders like AbuZayd are spearheading initiatives to provide that help, and they rely heavily on both local and international non-governmental organizations and volunteer organizations to strategize how best to address the problem.

For students interested in getting involved, find out more about the UNHCR and UNRWA at their respective websites.

This article was written by Sam Hubner.

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