Deacon Don Weigel, a Global Fellow with Catholic Relief Services and associate public policy coordinator for Catholic Charities of Buffalo, made a trip in January to Greece and Serbia to help Syrian refugees. The war has caused over 4 million Syrians to flee the violence, terrorism and unrest in their home country.
Deacon Weigel was among a group of eight Global Fellows and two CRS staff members who left Jan. 22, out of Washington Dulles International Airport, the last plane to leave the airport in the middle of the snowstorm that buffeted the Northeast. Once they got to Greece, their mission was to "witness the work that Catholic Relief Services is doing with, and on behalf of, the Syrian refugees."
"It was winter there, and Syria is a little warmer than where they're going, so we spent one morning helping them, distributing hats and gloves," Weigel said. "These are more of the refugees coming in from the port of Athens, just a whole mass of people. These folks, when they've left their country, everything that they own is on their back. This is everything they own."
According to Deacon Weigel, many of the refugees get themselves to Turkey first and pay a smuggler, rent a boat or buy one on the black market. Many headed for Greece since, by international law, countries are responsible for people who come into their territorial waters.
Deacon Weigel said in 2015, more than 500 people died trying to make the trip from Turkey to Greece, and while the CRS representatives were in the area, 65 more of them died. Upon their arrival, the refugees are taken to the port of Athens.
They visited a soup kitchen run by Caritas Athens, part of the international version of Catholic Charities, and spoke with families of refugees who were getting their meals there. They also visited what they dubbed the "Caritas Hotel," two hotels in Athens that Caritas rents to house families who need a break. They usually stay for a few days, but it is frequently the children who need breaks. Deacon Weigel shared the story of one family he met, a woman with six children whose husband had been killed in the war.
They then went to Serbia. In an old, abandoned bus stop, CRS uses an old hotel to coordinate shelter and beds for people who need to sleep. CRS also provides food and medical facilities for people who arrive sick, busload after busload, to continue their journey later.
Deacon Weigel said CRS coordinates efforts of local and international charities to ensure they do not duplicate services. It sends "enough of the right people" to be able to coordinate the efforts of the people who are already helping," he said.
Deacon Weigel denounced political rhetoric and fear that has caused Americans to be afraid of refugees, especially those who are Muslim and from Syria. Many figures, including presidential candidates and lawmakers, have demanded that those who arrive in the United States be sent back to where they came from. He said the sentiments are driven by ignorance of the situation and of the refugees themselves.
"These are the people we are afraid of being terrorists," Deacon Weigel said, scoffing, as he looked at a picture he took of the crowds of people. "First of all, many of these are trying to get to Germany because Germany is accepting them. Many of these people are fleeing the same bad people that we are afraid of. They are fleeing ISIS and some of the other terror organizations in their home country."
He also tackled a common argument of Syrian refugees all being young men who must be up to no good.
"If you have a family that needs to go to a new place, whom are you going to send that's best able to kind of pave the way? It's not the young kids, obviously. It's not older mom and dad. It's certainly not grandma," Weigel said. "It's the young man, who's got the wits, and the energy, the strength and the acceptance, so a lot of times, those young men that you see are going there in order to pave the way for the rest of their family to come. Are there some young men who are traveling by themselves? Of course there are, but the demographics are the demographics of any group of people that would be the victims of war, violence and terrorism."
Finally, Deacon Weigel said if ISIS terrorists did want to come into the United States, the process of getting into the United States as a refugee is long. Once a person is declared a refugee, whether from Afghanistan, Syria or Iraq, people are granted asylum because of wars there, but to go somewhere other than Germany, many refugees are stuck in camps with other refugees for six to 10 years.
"If you're a terrorist trying to get into the United States by posing to be a refugee, you're either willing to wait for decades or you're dumb, because it would be much easier for you to get there by student visa or work visa or tourist visa or something," Deacon Weigel said. "Turning our backs on the refugees is just a denial of their humanity and their dignity."
CRS advocates the use of a fourfold recommendation - "pray, learn, act and give" - and the plight of the refugees is also an opportunity for Catholics and others to not only offer prayers, but learn about what the situation is from sources that are credible and people who have been there and seen it.
Some other ways to help include writing to representatives and senators to ask for more open borders, ensuring funding is there to help, as well as being an informal advocate by speaking up for the refugees in daily life.
"Go to the CRS website and look at stories," Weigel said. "Get the truth from the Catholic Church's position, not from politicians that are ginning up this anger for their own political gain, and then act. If somebody speaks up and says something about how all these refugees are terrorists or something, be an informed advocate and say, 'Well, that's not really the case, and that's certainly not what our Church teaches.'"