Balkans Convening Aims to Offer Support to Partner Refugee Organizations

This week, UUSC’s Director of Programs, Research and Partner Support, Danielle Fuller-Wimbush is in Zagreb, Croatia to hold a three-day convening of our partners and other non-governmental organizations advancing refugee and migrant rights in the region. It’s an opportunity for 15 organizations serving refugees along the migrant route that cuts through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary to share strategies and better coordinate their critical work across multiple borders.

The Balkan Route, pre-March 2016. Source: Eurostat, Frontex

Since the spring of 2015, thousands of families have risked their lives to seek refuge in European Union (EU) countries, with most traveling through the Balkans. Many are fleeing the devastation caused by the Syrian civil war, which continues today.

In 2016, less than a year after the initial wave, countries began to close their borders and institute anti-immigrant tactics, stopping thousands of asylum-seekers from continuing their journey to safety and security. Hungary responded by building a razor-wire barrier on its border with Serbia and later with Croatia. Austria erected a four-kilometer-long fence at the Slovenia border, deployed armed forces around the border, and dramatically limited asylum applications. Macedonia, Croatia, and Slovenia announced that they were no longer letting migrants and refugees through their borders with Greece. For refugees, this has meant that their movement is largely curtailed and their access to asylum services is limited.

UUSC’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis has focused on supporting critical areas along the Syrian refugee migration route, where there is a lack of international protection, cooperation, burden sharing, and respect for the human rights of displaced peoples. Partners like the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, Centre for Peace Studies, and Are You Syrious, provide essential support to ensure that these families are resettled into their new home countries, that their rights are protected, and that they have sufficient access to basic services.

UUSC supported the Asylum Protection Center in buying this camper, which carries an interdisciplinary team throughout Serbia to assist refugees. The team includes a lawyer, psychosocial worker, and a translator.

Over the next few days our partners will discuss the current landscape of this crisis and how they can support one another to better serve refugees.

As conflicts throughout the world continue to fuel the largest refugee crisis since World War II, the need for convenings like these—which allow organizations on the ground to reflect, share stories, successes, and build relationships with one another—are critical. UUSC continues to find ways to respond to and address this and other humanitarian crises with compassion and genuine partnership. Read more about Danielle’s experience from Zagreb!

Haiti: The Enormity of the Struggle and the Sliver of Hope

Read my pre-trip post, Haiti On My Mind.

It is hard to visit Haiti and not feel a deep sense of shame, anger, and pain, and I’ve choked up a few times since returning home. Spending any time in Haiti’s Central Plateau, as I just have, is a gut-punch reminder of the privilege of being born with white skin; the privilege of being born in the Global North; and the privilege afforded by an uncompromising power structure that benefits the few at the great expense of the many.

The structural disadvantages facing Haiti, particularly when experienced first-hand, can feel paralyzing. As Paul Farmer of Partners In Health wondered on the eve of the election of Jean Bertrand Aristide, it’s hard to imagine “what even a government of saints and scholars could do in the face of such odds.” And yet, across the country, communities continue to find creative ways to survive and grassroots movements like UUSC’s partner, Mouvman Peyizan Papay (MPP) continue to support them and help give them hope.

Both the enormity of the struggle and the sliver of hope are on display in the EcoVillages and the EcoVillage School. On my trip, I found that Village 1, the first village supported by UUSC after the earthquake, is thriving. It has a functioning solar-powered well for drinking water, two cisterns to catch rain and irrigate the village’s gardens, and a pleasant stream nearby. The gardens produce moringa, manioc (cassava), peanuts, mangoes, and papaya. Goats, which the village owns, live in an enclosure on a hill. On the day we visited, bags of recently harvested peanuts and corn leaned against the community center’s walls, waiting to be taken to market. There are two community motorcycles for transport, an ox to help plow the larger fields, and a few houses even have electricity.

Kids play under a tree in Village 1. School was closed in observance of a national holiday.

Village 5, on the other hand, continues to struggle. As with Village 2, the well has not been able to produce any water for over a year and hopes that the rainy season might sufficiently raise the water table were recently dashed. The drought may be over, but water is still absent here. Villagers who want drinking water must walk 30 minutes to Village 6, where a UUSC grant recently repaired another broken well, and then carry it back home. Every village but Village 1 also lacks electricity, the absence of which prevents anyone from doing much of anything after the vast darkness blankets the area each night.

A girl carries water back from Village 6 to Village 5.

In spite of this, there are rays of light. A recent microloan project sponsored jointly by UUSC and our partners to support income-generating projects in the villages has begun to pay small dividends. With a loan from MPP, Village 5 planted a large field of manioc and peanuts, both of which can grow in harsh conditions. Despite failing to plant the manioc properly, the village succeeded in planting a large field of peanuts, which were nearly ready to harvest at the time of our visit.

The proceeds from the sale of these crops will not, in and of themselves, bring water or electricity to Village 5, but a portion will support the EcoVillage School. Hopefully, the village can use the remaining funds to strengthen their food sovereignty and incrementally improve their lives. In other words, some hope.

Students repeatedly told us of their passion for math. A few hoped to be engineers someday.

More hopeful still is the progress made by the EcoVillage School. Two years ago, the project was at a standstill: years behind schedule, students crowding into shared classrooms, nowhere for the students to eat lunch, and gardens suffering from the epic drought. When we visited last week, the student body had grown to 172 children. Four more classrooms had been built, allowing every grade from kindergarten through sixth to have individual space to learn. The school even has a separate kitchen, cafeteria, and food storage area now. Students repeatedly told us of their passion for math. A few hoped to be engineers someday.

Recently harvested peanuts dry in Village 4’s community center.

The vast gardens behind the school, once plagued by a protracted lack of rain, are now robust, growing moringa, pigeon beans, peanuts, and manioc. The school’s well delivers clean drinking water and virtually every student comes to school proudly wearing a bright green uniform. When we visited, Andraal, a parent living in Village 1, worked in the shade painting a new sign that would stand in front of the school, announcing the Institution Mixte Communautaire des EcoVillages de Colladere.

Of course, this being Haiti, there are still mountains left to climb. To qualify as a “government school,” thereby shifting hefty operating costs from MPP to the government, three more classrooms still need to be constructed. At least two more bathrooms must be built to accommodate the expanding student population. The school lacks a perimeter fence, which means that any equipment of value is at risk of theft. There is no system for irrigating the fields that support the school’s limited food program, and each of the food relief organizations to whom MPP has reached out for help has reported that they are too focused on hurricane relief in other parts of the country to worry about school lunches in the Central Plateau.

However, while the future of the school is still somewhat uncertain, it is surely a beacon. The community and its partners are committed to its future, and to the parents, children, and others in the Central Plateau, it represents hope. As the Haitian proverb goes, Lespwa se viv— “Hope makes one live.”

Thank you for virtually going on this journey with UUSC.

Kindergarteners welcome UUSC and the Atlanta Church Group to the EcoVillage School. 

Celebrating the United Nations’ Promise of International Democracy

On this day in 1945, the Charter of the United Nations entered into force and with it, the world’s most meaningful and lasting opportunity to build a global democratic institution, in which all countries could have an equal voice.

Today, we celebrate this founding vision. In the midst of the largest refugee crisis on record, ethnic cleansing in Burma (Myanmar), conflict in Syria and elsewhere, and increasing global devastation due to climate change, the need to realize the United Nations’ promise is greater than ever. UUSC is calling on the U.S. government and all world nations to strengthen international democratic institutions and resist the siren call of nationalism and chauvinism which threatens our collective future.

A Shared Vision

UUSC was founded in 1939 to help refugees secretly evacuate from Europe as fascist regimes were driving millions of people into exile and laying the groundwork for the Holocaust and World War II. The founding of the United Nations in 1945 was meant to ensure that war, genocide, and forced displacement could never again take place on such a scale. UUSC has shared these values and worked with and through U.N. institutions and instruments to advance human rights ever since.

That legacy of collaboration continues today. From November 7 to 12, UUSC is traveling to Bonn, Germany for the 23rd Conference of the Parties (“COP23”). This annual convening, hosted by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), keeps track of global progress on implementing compacts to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change. The most important of these compacts is the Paris Accords, which 195 Parties to the Convention have signed and 168 have ratified, and from which the United States has disappointingly decided to withdraw.

Leveling the Playing Field

This year’s COP also marks the first time that a small Pacific Island nation, Fiji, will be presiding over the Convention. Fiji’s leadership at this meeting provides an especially important opportunity to amplify the voices of people who are experiencing the worst effects of human-induced climate change. COP23 will be a critical moment for UUSC’s partners in the Pacific and all those on the frontlines of the impact of climate change to confront the U.S. government for its ambiguous and immoral position on this critical issue.

“The people of the Pacific islands are impacted every day by the decisions that larger, industrialized nations and financial institutions make. But they have very little power and leverage when it comes to diplomatic negotiations,” says Salote Soqo, senior program leader for environmental justice and climate action. “The United Nations is one of the very few spaces where countries can enter on a somewhat level playing field, which makes Fiji’s presidency quite significant.”

Steps Backward

When the United States fails to honor its international commitments, it abandons its democratic values. The Trump administration’s plan to exit the Paris Agreement is only one example of how the United States has worked to undermine global cooperation, especially during times of increased xenophobia and isolationist rhetoric. Last week, the administration also announced its intention to withdraw from UNESCO, the U.N. cultural heritage agency. The White House’s previous budget proposals have likewise threatened devastating cuts to core U.N. institutions. Especially egregious, the Trump administration recently slashed its refugee quota to only 45,000 – the smallest share of the international resettlement obligation the United States has shouldered since its Refugee Program began in 1980.

International democracy means being accountable to the people all over the world who are impacted by one country’s decisions, regardless of where any person resides. The United States’ obligations as a world leader include supporting the global response to the refugee crisis, ending policies that actively contribute to climate change, and supporting adaptive strategies for communities on the frontlines of these crises that honor the dignity and agency of the people involved.

Expanding the Bounds of the Possible

The promise of the United Nations was that no national or governmental self-interest would come before the shared needs of the human community. Seventy-two years later, that promise survives. While the United Nations faces many obstacles to achieving its original vision, it remains the planet’s best hope for finding shared solutions that honor the needs and capacities of all Earth’s inhabitants, not just the most powerful.

UUSC and our partners still believe in the possibility of finding those solutions. “Our partners don’t use the term ‘climate refugee,’ for instance,” says Soqo, “because they know that there is still time to change what is happening to the planet. Doing so requires fundamental transformations to neoliberalism and colonialism and the other oppressive structures in which we relate to one another. But that doesn’t make it impossible.” On United Nations Day, we honor this wider vision of the possible. And we remember that the only way to get there is together.

UUSC Condemns Horrific Attack in Somalia

This weekend’s bombing in Mogadishu, Somalia is an appalling violation of human rights. Nearly 300 people were killed, and hundreds of others wounded when a truck bomb detonated near a fuel tanker in an apparent attack by the militant group Al-Shabaab. UUSC extends our condolences to the victims and expresses solidarity with all those impacted by the loss of loved ones, the escalation of conflict, and the further destabilization of a region facing violence and famine.

This attack emphasizes the urgency of allowing the safe travel and resettlement of Somali refugees and immigrants at a time when the White House is targeting Somali travelers with increased scrutiny, deportation, and outright bans. Somali refugees in Ethiopia, several who already had U.S. visas, were among the hundreds of vulnerable people left stranded after the administration announced its initial travel and refugee bans in late January. The latest version of Trump’s travel ban, widely referred to as “Muslim Ban 3.0,” extended the restrictions on Somali travelers indefinitely and is set to go into effect this week.

Congress first designated Somalia for for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in 1991, following the collapse of the Somali central government and the country’s descent into chaos and civil war. TPS has been renewed continuously since then, as the conflict has drawn on, with the current designation lasting through September 2018. However, the Trump administration’s recent decision to revoke TPS for Somalia’s East African neighbor Sudan, which is also experiencing conflict and food insecurity, raises grave concerns about the program’s future. Moreover, TPS only applies to Somali immigrants who can prove presence in the United States since 2012. In April, the Trump administration announced plans to renew deportations of 5,000 Somalis not protected by TPS.

As in many places affected by the administration’s travel ban, the United States plays a role in the violence currently destabilizing Somalia and the region. The conflict between militant group Al-Shabaab and the Somali government dates back to a 2007 U.S.-backed Ethiopian intervention and reports as recent as last month indicate that the Trump administration is planning to further increase the number of unlawful drone strikes in the country.

The United States cannot disclaim its responsibilities to refugees and asylum-seekers, least of all in those places that have borne the brunt of its military actions. UUSC calls on the government to re-designate Somalia for TPS and to abandon all forms of its unconstitutional travel bans. These actions will help ensure that more innocent lives are not lost to callous acts of violence.

The Structures of White Supremacy Empowered Racist Violence in Charlottesville

UUSC decries both the white supremacist violence that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend and the everyday structures of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and homophobia in the United States that enable extremist violence.

The neo-fascist, neo-Nazi, and “alt-right” groups that converged on Charlottesville this weekend cannot be treated as simply fringe and isolated elements. They are a particularly extreme manifestation of the much deeper sickness of white supremacism in our society, where the legacy of slavery and discriminatory policies has led to extreme racial inequalities today in education, employment, incarceration, and wealth.

Likewise, as we celebrate the Unitarian Universalist (UU) values that call us to resist hatred and bigotry, we recognize the complicity and contradictions in our country, within UU history, and our own lives. Our partners at the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (ARC) remind us: “Until we acknowledge and understand the history of White Supremacy…we will not be able to dismantle effectively structural oppression or to address the root causes of hate and violence in this country.”

While controversy following the events in Charlottesville has centered on the President’s disturbing response to the violence, we must not forget the even more direct role he continues to play in empowering the forces of the extreme right. Leaders at all levels should unequivocally denounce these actions, and we must all work to reverse course on policies that criminalize and stigmatize communities of color. This includes the promotion of anti-immigration legislation that reads like a white nationalist wish list

We mourn the death and loss of life that occurred this past weekend. We also recognize that structures of supremacy are inherently violent, and they are killing and harming people every day in ways that don’t receive equal public attention. We are inspired by the example of people of faith and conscience, including many Unitarian Universalists, who went to Charlottesville this weekend to counter the violence of hate with a message of love. “They showed us that the light of hope and love burns brighter than hate. It is imperative that we keep this flame alive even in these dark times,” says UUSC President and CEO Tom Andrews.

As we process our personal and organizational response to the weekend events, we are creating space to meet with one another as a staff to share our grief, reflect on the systems of racism that exist, and plan our response. We continue to support the individuals and groups that are targeted by the neo-fascist, neo-Nazi, and “alt-right” movement. May our grief for the past and present move us to work harder for the future as it ought to be. As the great labor organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones once bid us: “pray for the dead—and fight like hell for the living.”

Legal Victory Should Be First Step Toward Expanding Sanctuary

UUSC applauds the decision of District Court Judge William Orrick last Tuesday to block the implementation of the Trump administration’s executive order to cut funding to so-called “sanctuary cities” nationwide. This preliminary injunction reaffirms the right of local governments to serve all their residents, regardless of immigration status, and to limit their cooperation with federal immigration enforcement programs like civil “detainers” that operate outside the court system and—frequently—in violation of the constitution itself.

However, this case also highlights the ways in which undocumented residents will continue to be at risk, even in so-called “sanctuary” jurisdictions. The court’s decision may have found this particular executive order to be a blatant case of overreach, but it leaves many of the tools that the federal government can still use to compel local jurisdictions to share information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) through the criminal justice system untouched. This continues to expose undocumented folks to the threat of raids and family separation. It therefore points to the need for “expanded sanctuary” policies that end mass arrest and over-policing, not just traditional sanctuary.

President Trump’s January 25 executive order on “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” was blatantly unlawful and unconstitutional from the start—especially in its threat to designate “sanctuary jurisdictions” as “not eligible to receive federal grants[.]” The District Court on Tuesday ruled that it is only Congress, not the President, who has the power to attach conditions to federal grant programs. Our democratic Constitution ensures that the legislative branch makes the law, not the dictates of one individual, and Judge Orrick observed in his ruling that Congress has repeatedly failed to pass legislation in recent years that targets sanctuary cities in ways similar to this executive order.

It is important to recognize, however, the limitations of what the courts alone can do to protect sanctuary policies. The ruling does not, for instance, remove the laws already on the books that compel cities to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement in other quite dangerous ways.

The three federal grant programs with immigration conditions already attached to them require local jurisdictions to share information with ICE about a person’s immigration status when detained. Because this part of federal law still stands, even so-called “sanctuary cities” must send the fingerprints of every person they arrest to a federal database that is shared with ICE. As San Francisco argued in its complaint in this case, this effectively “allows ICE to determine the immigration status of everyone in San Francisco custody.”

This means that under existing law, there are still serious limitations around how much a sanctuary city can protect its undocumented residents through purely immigration-related policies. As Albert Saint Jean from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) has put it, “ As an undocumented person, if you are arrested for jumping [a subway turnstile], that arrest means your fingerprints will be taken and given to a federal database and guess what—now ICE knows where to find you. This is the knowledge that facilitates ICE raids. All in a sanctuary city.”

This is one of the many reasons why “sanctuary” policies for one group of people will never suffice until we have expanded sanctuary for all. Undocumented people will never be protected from raids so long as our cities don’t also end racist and discriminatory law enforcement practices that expose certain communities to systematic mass arrest and mass incarceration.

Inspired and informed by the analysis of Mijente, BAJI, Black Youth Project 100, and other groups leading the front-line struggle against criminalization, the UUA and UUSC have joined together to launch the “Love Resists” campaign to stand in solidarity with the movement to expand sanctuary and end all policies that criminalize and stigmatize anyone in our communities.