Walking down the crowded streets of a bustling Istanbul in the summer of 2019, I soaked up every aspect of the vibrant city, in complete awe of the twinkle of the lights, saturation of history and the overwhelming generosity of its people. A night in particular remains fresh in my memory, one that was filled with the warmth of a summer breeze fresh off the Bosporus.
That night after my professional duties had completed for the day, I explored the rich cuisine and was leisurely walking back to my hotel with a to-go bag filled with the leftover delicacies I couldn’t finish, when I witnessed a young mother and her child sifting through garbage in an attempt to find food. While this was an incredibly striking moment set against the backdrop of the night, it, unfortunately, is not an isolated incident.
It is no secret that here in the United States one may see a similar site, with homeless and displaced populations at an alarmingly high number, but the amount of humanitarian aid needed in this region grows at an alarming rate.
In an attempt to provide a quick solution, I handed the mother my leftovers, and she replied “shukran.” Now, I am very much a beginner in understanding the Turkish language, but I knew that this response was in Arabic not Turkish. Perhaps inaccurately but in that moment, I gathered that this young family was part of the refugee population, one that has overwhelmingly increased in the region.
With stop-gap measures and short-term solutions, the refugee population has continued to grow and now faces even more peril. While the world faces a potentially deadly illness in the COVID-19 pandemic, there is another virus that has long continued to go untreated, and that is the crisis of displaced refugees that will unfortunately only continue to worsen without a major international response.
It is no question that COVID-19 has completely altered our way of life that we knew before, with the implementation of social distancing to hopefully prevent the increased spread of the virus. With millions of the world’s population in dire need of humanitarian assistance, we face even greater added challenges. Whether it be Syrians fleeing a war-torn country, or suffering Yemenis facing extreme political instability, or other populations displaced, millions around the world face the need for drastic assistance.
Not surprisingly, COVID-19 has only magnified the need for emergency support, according to the United Nations. While host countries like Turkey have worked diligently to increase support within global communities, the call for treatment of the “virus” of the suffering of refugee populations, which has gone untreated for a long time.
The uncertainty in our world naturally has deeply impacted these vulnerable populations, and it is critical for global organizations like that of the United Nations, NATO, the World Health Organizations (WHO), and more to include “stateless” populations in their public health responses. When refugee populations are safer, a host community is safer.
The global response to the coronavirus has been chaotic and shaken multilateral and global institutions. However, it is not too late to utilize this time for increased global cooperation and transparency. On World Refugee Day, June 20, I join those across the world to support and recognize the courage of refugees from around the world, and more importantly call upon leaders and global institutions to increase relief, aid and support to populations that are all too often overlooked.
*Turkish Heritage Organization's programs director, Washington D.C.
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