Skip to main site content.
© Women in the World

#WITW India

Cate Blanchett spotlights greatest crisis since World War II

By Neha Dixit on November 20, 2015

“What is the one thing you took with you when bombs were exploding your house?,” Melissa Fleming, Head of Communications and Chief Spokesperson, UNHCR asked a Syrian refugee boy.

He answered, “My high school diploma.”

In a panel discussion at the New Delhi Women in the World summit, moderated by actress and activist Cate Blanchett, three women who have worked closely with refugees across the globe shared heartbreaking accounts. Blanchett, who has worked with Syrian refugees in Lebanon, reminded the audience that “it’s very easy to forget the perspectives of the individuals who are displaced; their challenges and their vulnerabilities, their hopes and dreams and even their sense of what the future might hold for them.”

Fleming said that one reason people flee is because they see a possibility of education and a future.

Zainab Salbi, founder of Nida’a Alnissa Productions, said that the one thing the refugees absolutely need is dignity. “Not just for Syrian refugees but refugees everywhere.” She told the story of a father’s escape from ISIS in a van. His four year old daughter fell out of a window when he was at the wheel and the vehicle was under fire, forcing him to choose between saving her or the rest of his children and other family members. It has been a year since then and the father is still in deep shock. “It took away his ability to provide and protect his family. It robbed him of his dignity.”

Lynsey Addario, who has covered conflict for the past 25 years as a photojournalist, most recently in a haunting series of photographs of refugees for the New York Times magazine, has experienced trauma at first hand. She has been kidnapped twice, and two of her drivers have been killed — “something too heavy to live with,” Addario said. “Refugees often don’t feel welcome,” she said, despite their having been taken in by Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. And they must contend with the feeling of being uprooted, she added. She said that as a mother she feels acutely “the fear of not being able to protect one’s children.”

Given the refugees’ concern for their children, Blanchett asked, what drives some of them to marry their daughters as young as 12 and 13? Salbi replied, “I once met a mother who had married off her young girl child. When asked the reason for it she broke down. She said she did that because they had nothing to feed her. At least the person who married her can feed and protect her.”

Salbi described another incident about a well-to-do Syrian family on a holiday to Kenya. When they returned home, their house was bombed and they became refugees dependent on UNHCR for something as basic as food. She reasoned that decisions such as those regarding child marriage are made because of extreme hunger and poverty.

The UNHCR, supporting 3.9 million Syrian refugees and more than 20 million people living in hosting countries, is in serious need of funding, according to the agency. “There is an absolute shortage of funding,” which will affect the lives of the refugees, said Fleming. “Political leaders out there for votes are recklessly using the refugee crisis for their benefit,” she added.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, Blanchett reminded the audience that Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson had compared Syrian refugees to rabid dogs in a statement regarding the protection of the U.S. from terror attacks.

Salbi added, “We are hearing extremist voices — from ISIS to rabid dogs. All countries can do something about it. 0.0001 percent of all Islam form the ISIS or the Al Qaeda. As a Muslim, we have to rise up and say that is not my religion.”

She said emphatically, “We must not forget that the refugee crisis got global attention only when they started fleeing to Europe … We must not forget that the same Muslims who are refugees are running away from ISIS. People in the East are as scared of ISIS as in the West.”