A Look Back in Time and Hope For the Way Forward

I remember almost viscerally when the media began to circulate images of a young lifeless toddler in 2015. He had washed up on the shores of Turkey, face down in his red t-shirt, shorts, and shoes. His name was Aylan Kurdi. It was reported that he was from Syria and had drowned on a boat traveling from the Turkish island of Bodrum to the Greek island of Kos. Aylan’s five-year-old brother, Galip, and his mother, Rehan, also drowned. His father, Abdullah, was the only family member to survive.

This image shocked the conscience of people all over the world and in particular, here in the United States. It was Labor Day weekend, and I was curled up safely camping with my own toddler boy.

A painting paying tribute to three-year-old Aylan Kurdi who drowned as he and his family were fleeing violence in Syria.  Photo by Thierry Ehrmann / CC BY

At the time, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) had been following the reports of increasing migrants traveling from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and parts of North Africa. Only weeks before, we had given our partners in Thailand some assistance as they sought to help a group of Rohingya refugees from Burma that were trying to reach Malaysia on a flotilla.

We recognized that the actual choices families across the globe were having to make – to choose the open sea as their only option for safety over staying on dry land – demonstrated the direness of these situations. At the time, we were also addressing migrant conditions within our own country, fighting against family detention at our southern border and advocating for the federal government to increase the refugee admission quota and budget.

After the picture of Aylan went viral, we received a call from Rev. Dr. Ilona Szent-Ivanyi of the Unitarian District in Hungary describing the situation in Hungary as untenable, with 2,000 to 3,000 people arriving at the Hungary-Serbia border every day. He told us that migrants were met with a lack of compassion from officials and that the government had organized 100 buses to take migrants to the Austrian border – 6,500 people were said to have left Hungary in one day. Conversely, civilians were showing great kindness and helping thousands of asylum-seekers at the Keleti railroad station.

At UUSC, we started calling groups on the ground in Greece, Hungary, Croatia, and Serbia, learning much about how communities were self-organizing and working around local governments to provide direct assistance and hope to weary migrants seeking a future for their families.

Together as a community, with the Unitarian Universalist Association, Unitarian Universalist congregations, and Unitarian Universalists we raised more than $600,000 dollars and mobilized action across the United States to help steer a more humanist foreign policy that would uphold the inherent dignity and worth of every human being. One that understands we cannot turn away from these events.

Our strategy evolved as the situation evolved. As migrants made their way across the Balkans, and as borders began to shut, UUSC catalyzed the efforts of local actors working alongside refugees. You can read more about our approach here. I was heartened to hear the stories and to visit with these partners as they grouped together for a regional convening last fall.

I’ve just landed in Budapest where we’ll be meeting with our partners in the coming days. I find myself curious and excited, and most of all hopeful. The impact our partners have had is vast, ranging from fighting unlawful cases that attempted to break down asylum systems to providing baby sanitary kits to arriving mothers.

I’m hopeful about our journey and look forward to sharing more.

Partner Lessons for Refugee Protection Learned along the Balkan Route

It has been more than three years since the first wave of Syrian migrants fleeing the civil war travelled across Europe searching for safety. After many of the states on the route closed their borders in 2016, numbers of migrants transiting through the Balkans dropped; yet, significant numbers of refugees have been stranded in Balkan countries, and thousands continued to use the Balkan route to seek refuge. While many human rights funders focused their response to the crisis on neighboring countries, UUSC doubled down on our investment in the Balkans where our research identified a clear opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives.

This week, I will be traveling with fellow UUSC staff to Hungary, Serbia, and Croatia to hear  from our partners about the current situation facing refugees and to share results of the work we supported with a committed group of UUSC members.

It continues to be a challenging time for the region. Serbia is hosting thousands of refugees, many of whom try to enter Croatia or Hungary and are pushed back, often with violence. In Hungary, the recent victory of the Fidesz party was achieved on the back of a xenophobic and anti-civil society campaign. Newly re-elected Prime Minister Viktor Orban has promised to pass a law that would require any non-governmental organization (NGO) assisting migrants to obtain a government-issued license, creating a pretense for shutting them down. In Croatia, authorities have lodged criminal charges against human rights defenders for merely helping migrants contact the police to file asylum claims.

In the face of discriminatory policies and ongoing human rights violations in countries of asylum, refugees continue to seek sanctuary and build their lives as members of our shared community. Human rights organizations, including UUSC’s partners, continue their day-to-day work, winning battles on the way. They call attention to illegal border pushbacks, advocate for refugee victims of gender-based violence, and re-unify refugee families.

During our trip, we will be meeting with six organizations across the Balkans trail, and some of the individuals they have served. We hope to bring UUSC and its members closer to their work; and glean broader lessons for refugee protection and the human rights movement here in the United States. Watch this space for future dispatches.

Read more about the history, evolution and response to this crisis.

Syrian Refugee Crisis: Abandonment, Discrimination, and Response

The refugee crisis in the Middle East continues to swell as the civil war in Syria enters its seventh year. Ongoing atrocities of the Assad regime, including indiscriminate use of incendiary weapons and starvation siege tactics, as well as the escalating brutality of armed groups continue to displace millions of innocent people.

The length and severity of the conflict in Syria provoked an unprecedented wave of migrants seeking safe haven in neighboring countries. Several years ago, as the burden faced by some countries increased (particularly Greece, Italy, and Hungary), tensions arose in the European Union (EU). In September 2015, the EU Commission announced a plan to accept asylum-seekers from front-line Mediterranean countries under a quota system. The commitment consisted of relocating 160,000 people in need of international protection by September 2017. Failure to comply with the resettlement requirements of this plan would trigger a penalty of 250,000 euros (about $287,000) per migrant. As of September 2017, 17.3% of the target had been met.


Syria’s neighboring countries, in particular Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, are hosting the vast majority of the refugee population. However, none of these countries have fully ratified international agreements to protect refugees’ rights, and their governments have enacted discriminatory legislation against refugees, making it more difficult for them to obtain legal aid, work permits, education for children, and psychosocial assistance. This leaves refugees extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Despite the lack of protection and disproportionate numbers hosted by Syria’s neighboring countries, European governments sought a joint solution to prevent refugees from seeking protection in Europe. After the 2015 wave of refugees who arrived in Europe headed mostly for Germany and Sweden, the EU announced the closure of the Western Balkans route in March 2016, effectively trapping thousands of refugees in the midst of their journey. Major international donors pulled out of the region as the refugee flow was forcibly redirected, leaving few resources for those left behind. At the same time, the EU cleared the way for unlawful returns to Turkey declaring it a “safe third country,” despite its lack of refugee protections.

In February 2017, as part of their continuous effort to prevent migrants from reaching European shores, the EU agreed to give Libya’s government $215 million to stop migrant boats in the country’s territorial waters and set up refugee camps. Libya has also extended its “Search and Rescue” zone into international waters, restricting access to humanitarian vessels. As a result, last summer, groups such as Médecins Sans Frontieres, Save the Children, and Sea Eye suspended their rescue operations.

These impediments have not stopped the migration. In fact, hundreds of thousands of migrants still cross the Mediterranean from Africa into Italy every year, and arrivals via the old route of Macedonia and Serbia, or from Turkey via Bulgaria and Serbia, still happen every day. Since March 2016 the journey has only become more difficult, more expensive, and more dangerous.

The callous abandonment of goodwill toward refugees is visible outside of Europe as well. In the United States, President Trump has drastically lowered the refugee admissions cap and signed an executive order that barred entry to the United States to refugees from 11 countries, including war-torn Syria. The United States is also witnessing a surge in xenophobic and Islamophobic political rhetoric, and with it a rise in reported hate crimes against Muslims and other minorities.

Refugees, who face death if they are returned home, are confronted with terrible uncertainty and limitations on their rights every way they turn.

Balkans Migrant Route: County-by-Country Status

The situation along the Balkan route differs from country to country. For the first months of 2015, when migrants and refugees were allowed to pass through informal border crossings, the Balkan route started in Turkey, then went from Greece through Macedonia and Serbia into Hungary. A secondary route also beginning in Turkey formed through Bulgaria into Serbia and continued through Hungary. Upon crossing Hungary, refugees and migrants continued toward northern countries in Europe.

Map 1. The Balkan route, pre-March 2016, Source: Eurostat, Frontex


As of April 15, there are approximately 3,722 new refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in Serbia, a decrease of almost 50 percent since last year. These individuals are mostly accommodated in camps set up by the Serbian authorities. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operate with the consent of the Commissariat for Refugees (CRS) inside the camps to provide basic necessities such as food, shelter, and medical care. Most people wait to enter Hungary based on an unofficial list.

Attempts to cross the Hungary-Croatia border occur regularly and are met with resistance that is sometimes very violent.


At the end of 2017, Hungary had 678 people in asylum proceedings and had granted 1,216 people protection. Since January 2018, only two people per day have been admitted, which Hungarian authorities deny. During the asylum procedure, asylum-seekers cannot leave the transit area, and NGOs are denied access. The process can last many months, and those who are denied asylum are sent back to Serbia. Those who are successful in their application are moved to an open camp.

Detention conditions in Hungary are unfit for the long stay of migrants and refugees. UUSC partner, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee argued the appeal of a case to the European Court of Human Rights, which found the country in violation of the prohibition of inhuman treatment. The European Court has also issued temporary measures ordering the transfer of applicants to more humane centers, but Hungary has not complied.

Migrants found outside the transit zone are regularly pushed back to Serbia through the use of beatings, pepper spray, and attack dogs. The Hungarian state has also deployed 3,000 additional “border hunters,” to support police monitoring the border.

NGOs in Hungary, including our partner the Hungarian Helsinki Committee have taken a firm stand for the protection of the human rights of refugees, assisting refugees and raising awareness of their plight, while initiating numerous successful strategic litigation cases against the government. As a result, the government has placed restrictions on NGOs’ work and many have been accused of being illegitimate foreign agents or advocates of potential “terrorists.” The government recently proposed legislation that would require NGOs assisting migrants to obtain a licence, thereby providing a mechanism that allows the government to shut these organizations down.

On April 8, 2018, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s coalition was re-elected. His administration has taken a hard-line approach to immigration that is often inflammatory and laced with islamophobic rhetoric. He now claims a mandate to handle the refugee situation and has refused to honor the quota set by the EU in addition to passing the anti-NGO legislation as the first order of business for the new parliament.


About 880 people applied for protection status in Croatia in 2017. Asylum-seekers are mostly accommodated in two centers in Zagreb and Kutina. NGOs have access to those centers.

Croatia has increased restrictions on refugees. In many cases, status has been denied because of alleged “security checks” conducted by police forces. The basis of these decisions are not disclosed to the applicant, and therefore cannot be challenged.

Croatian police have been responsible for a number of pushbacks against migrants seeking entry, some of them particularly violent. NGOs have began accompanying refugees and migrants to the police station to prevent their forced deportation and ensure their safety.

UUSC’s Response Strategy in the Face of Changing Political Context 

UUSC works in areas overlooked by traditional relief agencies where we know our efforts can spur solutions on the ground that center the needs and voices of affected people. Beginning in 2015, we responded to this crisis with a strategy to partner with organizations working on the front lines to support Syrian refugees across their entire journey, from first arrival in neighboring countries to successful resettlement in Europe or the United States. Key components of this effort included:

  • Emergency aid and resettlement support in Greece, Croatia, and Serbia: Working with partners including Are You Syrious and the Centre for Peace Studies to document human rights abuses, as well as offer medical aid, mental health support, and resettlement assistance to long-term refugees.
  • Legal access in Hungary, Jordan, and the United States: With partners such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and the Arab Renaissance for Democracy — Legal Aid we are providing legal assistance and awareness training, reunifying family members, and assisting refugees in navigating the resettlement processes, including how to challenge discriminatory treatment.
  • Advocacy in Europe and the United States: Together with our partners the Arab American Civic Council and Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, among others, we are raising public awareness and sensitivity around refugee issues, challenging xenophobic sentiments and legislation and upholding the inherent dignity of immigrant communities.

As discussed above, in just a few short years the circumstances facing refugees have changed drastically. Our current strategy responds to the fact that what were once “transit countries” are increasingly “countries of permanent stay.” UUSC is now supporting refugees in Greece, Croatia, Serbia, Hungary, and Macedonia to ensure:

  • Access to protection: Combating illegal border pushbacks, protecting right to asylum – primarily through monitoring, advocacy and legal aid.
  • Refugee integration: Community organizing and family reunification.

We also continue our efforts to support civil society and relationship-building, and organized a partner-led convening in Europe last fall to facilitate collaboration between our partners on the ground, as we support advocacy efforts and litigation to increase refugee admissions and resettlement in the United States.

Through this work UUSC strives to uphold the dignity and human rights of refugees, providing a compassionate response to a crisis that is as urgent as ever.

Workers Organizing for Welcoming Communities

Across the country, in cities large and small, people are organizing to build communities that are inclusive, embrace new members, and celebrate the diverse contributions and experiences of all their residents. Through our grantmaking and advocacy, UUSC has tapped into this energy to amplify these efforts.

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to visit with two of our partners Greater Minnesota Worker Center (GMWC) and Rural Community Workers Alliance (RCWA). Both organizations are partners under Love Resists, UUSC’s joint campaign with the UUA, and deeply engaged in organizing workers to resist the criminalization of our neighbors based upon their identities and create safer, more just, and welcoming communities.

Building Welcoming Communities is Contagious

UUSC began partnering with GMWC in St. Cloud, Minn., last year, supporting the center’s “Resist and Persist” campaign. This effort seeks to advance human rights and social justice by “welcoming refugees and protecting undocumented immigrants and other vulnerable populations from deportations.”

I had to the opportunity to visit with incredible community organizers at GMWC in their St. Cloud office, including Ahmed, Mohamed, Sado, and Yasmin (starting left).

Thanks in part to GMWC’s outreach, the community of St. Cloud is becoming a friendlier place for immigrant and refugee communities. GMWC focuses primarily on organizing low-wage Latinx and Somali workers; however, their work extends beyond worker rights, enriching the lives of all St. Cloud residents by fostering a welcoming culture.

A great example of GMWC’s impact was their efforts to defeat a city council effort to reduce refugee admissions in the city. With the resolution defeated, GMWC’s next step was to advocate for the city council’s passage of a “Welcoming City” resolution, which inspired the nearby city of Willmar to do the same.

RCWA staff members and local workers meet to discuss their work to create a welcoming community.

RCWA Centers Welcoming Efforts on Immigrant and Worker Rights

From my first moment in Milan, Mo., there was an inescapable sense of community. Located in northeastern Missouri, the town is over two hours away from Kansas City, the nearest major city. The community has a tradition of self-sufficiency rooted in neighbors supporting neighbors. It is in this spirit that RCWA began organizing the town’s Latinx workers to address workplace issues, ranging from discrimination to low pay in 2013.

Following the November 2016 election, many of RCWA’s members were concerned by damaging and dangerous rhetoric around immigration and worker rights. Determined to address the issue head on, the group expanded their efforts around making sure Milan is a welcoming community for all residents.

UUSC has supported RCWA’s continued advocacy for workers’ rights, as well as their organizing efforts to help community members overcome fear of immigration enforcement actions, which they are advancing in partnership with local allies.

Continuing our Support for Welcoming Communities

After witnessing our partners’ incredible impact on building welcoming communities, I was reminded of how this work truly is a process. As they reminded me, their successes have not occurred overnight. With that in mind, it remains as critical as ever to continue directing energy toward sustaining the nationwide momentum around building more welcoming communities. As UUSC works to advance human rights and social justice in 2018, our continued partnerships with grassroots groups leading this work across the country will be critical to our success.

As I joined our partners in meetings with their community members, the importance of this relationship was always at the forefront of their conversations. As one of the workers in Missouri said, “Thank God that there are good people … who are interested in opening our eyes to stand up for our rights and stand up with us against those who exploit us … we are really grateful to partner with UUSC.”

Reflecting on my trip, and looking to the year ahead, I cannot wait to see what these organizations will accomplish through their ever-evolving and deepening roles as builders of welcoming communities ­­– and I’m energized by the opportunity to continue supporting them in their efforts. Join Love Resists in this movement to learn more and check out our Sanctuary and Solidarity Toolkit,, which provides easy steps for taking action in your community.

Syria TPS Decision Provides Needed Relief, But Not Nearly Enough

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) welcomes reports that the Trump administration has decided to renew Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nearly 6,000 Syrians living in the United States, while expressing dismay and consternation that this provision will not cover Syrians arriving after August 1, 2016.

In the lead up to this decision, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had the option of re-designating Syria for TPS, rather than merely renewing. A re-designation would have allowed more recent Syrian arrivals to apply for the status. In previous extensions, TPS for Syrian nationals has been re-designated as well as renewed.

It is difficult to imagine a country that more directly fits the criteria for re-designation than Syria. It is in the midst of an ongoing civil war that has generated the world’s largest contemporary refugee crisis and taken the lives of at least 400,000 people. The new administration’s refusal to take the step of re-designation is impossible to reconcile with DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s admission that “the conditions upon which Syria’s designation was based continue to exist.”

The failure to re-designate Syria also provides further disturbing evidence that the administration grounds its TPS decisions in xenophobia and bias, rather than the individual country assessments that Congress intended when it created the TPS program in 1990.

In November, the Trump administration ended TPS for 59,000 Haitian nationals, despite the country’s ongoing natural disaster recovery and recent disease outbreaks. In early January, they likewise announced the end of TPS for nearly 200,000 immigrants from El Salvador, in the midst of extreme violence and other major social disruptions in that country. The NAACP has filed a lawsuit charging that the TPS decision for Haiti was racially motivated, citing abundant evidence of the administration’s prejudice against TPS holders.

As with these other TPS decisions, DHS’s refusal to re-designate Syria did not occur in a vacuum. President Trump campaigned on a pledge to institute a “Muslim Ban,” and his rhetoric on both the campaign trail and in office has made Syrian refugees a frequent target of fear-mongering.

Further, last week marked the one-year anniversary of the administration’s failed attempt to implement a discriminatory ban on refugees and travelers from Muslim-majority countries, including Syria. Despite being struck down by multiple courts, the Trump administration continues to impose new versions of the order on Syrian nationals, including new restrictions announced Monday that will make it harder for refugees from Syria and ten other countries to reach safety in the United States.

The administration’s political and biased use of TPS bodes ill for immigrant communities whose futures depend on DHS renewal decisions later this year. These include Nepal in April, Yemen in July, and Somalia in November. All of these countries are sites of ongoing recovery efforts from recent natural disasters or devastating armed conflicts to which the U.S. government has directly contributed.

UUSC urges the administration to honor the humanitarian purpose of the TPS program, rather than wield it as a nativist, political cudgel. In the meantime, Congress should act to pass permanent legislative solutions for long-term TPS holders, who are all members of our shared community.

An Interview With Rachel Freed, Vice President And Chief Program Officer

Carly Cronon spoke with Rachel Freed about her past work in human rights, what drew her to UUSC, and her most memorable moments with the organization thus far.

When and why did you first become involved in human rights work?

I grew up in a multicultural family and spent a lot of time visiting relatives in Southeast Asia, where I witnessed persistent inequalities and the dehumanization that went with it. It made me eager to develop my own understanding of how different political, social, economic and cultural forces shaped how and why people had certain rights over others.

Years later, a pivotal moment occurred during my junior semester abroad in India. I visited a rural fishing community that had been subject to fly ash pollution from a neighboring Exxon plant. Villagers in the community were mostly illiterate and had been told by the company that the fly ash was not harmful. In response to their concerns, the company-sponsored health clinics told villagers they were fine. This continued until a local nongovernmental organization working with a community member tested the water and found strains of harmful chemicals in the fish and streams.

Through outreach and education, the villagers organized the entire community, mobilized, and successfully demanded accountability. This experience helped me to understand the power of local communities and NGOs to catalyze vibrant and democratic social change movements.

What drew you to UUSC’s human rights work in particular?

My journey to UUSC was inspired by working with a UU congregation and community in a great struggle against injustice. When I graduated from law school, I worked for a civil rights firm in New York City, where the lead attorney humored my request to do pro bono work by connecting me to his UU congregation in Ridgewood, NJ. It was there that I met four passionate women who chose to spend their free time visiting detained asylum-seekers in detention centers. I offered to take one case, but then I started to get calls from the detention center on a daily basis.

There was one rather stark case I can remember – that of a Liberian refugee who escaped rebel forces during the reign of Charles Taylor, the former President and now convicted war criminal. After witnessing her siblings’ deaths, she fled the country and came to the United States. She lived here for almost seven years – just shy of the residency requirement to become a U.S. citizen – when a minor shoplifting incident landed her in detention, facing deportation. She had no representation, she suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and her kids had been taken into child protective services. My UU friends began to visit her each week to connect with her children’s government rep, and to help piece together the documents in her case. Next began our three-year journey together. It was quite a trek from Brooklyn to the middle of New Jersey, but my UU friends never failed to ferry me from the commuter rail, or deliver documents and do a visitation when needed. Eventually, we found the psychologist who had treated this woman in detention; he testified about her PTSD, and we were able to win the case. She was released and reunited with her children after nearly four years of living in the detention center.

I share this story because it is about a few caring individuals and what they accomplished by offering their time and generosity and by organizing their community for a specific cause. This is what drew me, and continues to draw me, to UUSC – it is our collective approach and struggle for justice in this world—as inspired by our founders and continued onwards through the years.

What do you like most about your job?

At UUSC, we are lucky to work with some of the most remarkable human rights activists around the world – people who wake each day not quite sure of what their efforts may bring for their communities, but who continue on anyway because of their deep belief in love, equality, and humanity. We are able to draw tremendous strength and courage from our partners. I also feel incredibly fortunate to work with such talented, passionate, and committed colleagues – I learn so much from all of our staff on a daily basis.

What is one of your most cherished UUSC memories or success stories?

One of my most cherished moments occurred during my trip to Nepal a few months after the 2015 earthquake, while meeting with one of our partners focused on trauma resiliency. They were helping to train a cadre of local teachers working with rural Dalit youth who had received very little support since the earthquake. We were in a small classroom when one of the children began to break down – she had lost her mother during the earthquake and was struggling to take care of her little brother. One of the trainers immediately calmed her down, and they sat for a while, talking and focusing on her breathing and the present moment. She managed to calm down, stop crying, and soon was smiling and sharing with us her dreams for her brother and telling us about her hopes for herself. It was really moving. I felt proud to know that UUSC was able to help bring trauma resiliency skills to teachers serving Dalit children in a remote area that had been overlooked by larger recovery efforts.

What do you and your team look for in finding new UUSC partners?

UUSC’s approach is unique to most Western human rights organizations because we center the voices of communities and their values in our pursuit to advance human rights and transform unjust power structures. Our model focuses not on a community’s helplessness or lack of knowledge, but rather their assets and their solutions. Therefore, we generally look to partner with smaller, lesser-known organizations doing innovative work to transform and empower marginalized populations, often in the face of extreme and adverse circumstances. The process of selecting new partners involves working with those organizations to identify how UUSC’s financial and other resources can be best leveraged to further human rights on the ground. It also includes mapping stakeholders, identifying points of power, and thinking through how UUSC’s voice and prominence as a U.S.-based human rights organization can be used to instigate systemic change.

What is an upcoming UUSC initiative that you are particularly excited about?

I’m in the middle of packing my bags for a trip to Zagreb, Croatia to participate in a convening that brings together our partners in the Balkans who are helping to serve Syrian refugees. At this convening, our partners from Hungary, Serbia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Croatia will be coming together to exchange information, build relationships, coordinate responses and collectively strategize on how to navigate the increasingly challenging political environments in which they operate. Our Balkans partners work in counties that have become increasingly hostile towards refugees, and their organizations are facing new government restrictions on their work. I’m excited to talk with them about their experiences and strategize ways UUSC can support their collective efforts during this critical time.