UNHCR Ambassador Ben Stiller tells U.S. Congress: Syrian refugees still need support
When renowned actor and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Ben Stiller left the packed hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in the United States capital of Washington, D.C., he left no one in doubt about the message he had come to deliver: Syrian refugees still need the world’s help.
“When you see the face of it in person and what’s going on there now it’s just very important that we do everything we can to help,” Stiller told lawmakers after delivering a potent opening statement in formal testimony before the influential Committee on Foreign Relations of the United States Senate on May 1st.
“Nobody chooses to be a refugee.”
That was the heart of a reality that Stiller has seen firsthand in recent years as he has traveled to UNHCR refugee operations in various parts of the world, including most recently in March when he visited Lebanon. As he traveled through the cities and farmlands of the tiny country, he met countless Syrian families forced to flee the conflict that has engulfed their homeland for more than eight years now.
"The term ‘refugee’ has unfortunately become politicized."
It was a rare and valuable opportunity to carry those powerful stories of survival, courage and hope for a better future directly to elected officials in Washington whose views and actions continue to be instrumental in supporting UNHCR and its ability to assist millions of Syrian refugees whose lives depend on that help.
“The fact is that there are still millions of Syrians who were uprooted from their homes and who are still being hosted generously by neighboring countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey,” Matthew Reynolds, UNHCR regional representative for the United States and the Caribbean, said following Stiller’s testimony.
“Their resources are strained and Ben’s appearance in Congress was an important opportunity for UNHCR to express our gratitude to the U.S. government and the American people for their unwavering humanitarian commitment and urge them to stay the course at this crucial time,” Reynolds said.
UNHCR figures indicate there are currently an estimated 6.5 million Syrian refugees worldwide, the majority of them living in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon with smaller numbers in Egypt and Iraq.
While a small, but increasing number of Syrian refugees have made the decision to return to their country, many others have been forced to flee ongoing violence in Syria and the majority of refugees have made clear to UNHCR that they do not foresee a return to Syria in the near future.
"Refugees are real people with real stories."
But while data show clearly just how acute the Syrian refugee situation remains, Stiller eloquently reminded lawmakers that it is a story not of numbers but of mothers and fathers, boys and girls, families fundamentally no different from any in the United States or anywhere else.
“Over the years, the term ‘refugee’ has unfortunately become politicized despite the fact that refugees are real people with real stories – stories that are the most traumatic I’ve heard, especially as a father,” Stiller said.
“Getting a chance to meet some of these people and hear their stories firsthand has been a privilege. Immediately it becomes clear what we all have in common. Though we come from different cultures and totally different worlds, we all want the same things – to provide a good environment for our kids to grow up in. To laugh and share experiences with family and friends. To see our children grow up and achieve their dreams.”
Stiller, who was accompanied at the hearing by the head of the International Rescue Committee, David Milliband, engaged in lively and thoughtful exchanges with senators including James Risch, Robert Menendez, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, Tim Kaine, Ben Cardin, Jeanne Shaheen and others.
After the hearing, Stiller spent several additional hours in separate one-on-one meetings with other key U.S. members of Congress including Senator Lindsay Graham and Representative Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, during which he continued to remain focused on his number one goal: securing continued commitment to the needs of Syrian refugees and of all refugees worldwide.