A Milestone for Syrian Refugees

By Bill O'Keefe

As you think about the number 2016, here's another one to contemplate: 1,000,000.

It's almost a cliché of a number, used to represent a certain immensity that challenges the imagination - a million dollars, or a million and one reasons, or one in a million chances.

And now one million -- and counting -- is the number of refugees and economic migrants who have made the trek to Europe, according to figures compiled by the International Organization for Migration.

It's just a number. The 999,999th refugee is just as important as the 1,000,000th. Or the 654,373rd. Or the 507th. Or the 34th. Each number represents an individual, a person with his or her own story of leaving home - for most that means Syria -- to seek another land.

Yet it does grab the attention.

It lets us know the scale of disaster the world is facing when this many people will risk their lives - the death toll due to drowning stands at 3,695 and also rises daily - to make it to a place few of them have ever been before.

But consider this - that one million is just a fraction of those who have left their homes due to the Syrian civil war. That figure stands at 11 million - meaning that essentially the combined populations of New York and Chicago have got up and headed out. About 4 million of those have crossed the borders into another country. Only a quarter of those have made it to Europe.

There is no doubt that these people need our compassion. They are fleeing violence that has killed more than 200,000 of their fellow countrymen. They merit the help of world as they try to adjust to the disaster that was thrust upon them.

One thing that we at Catholic Relief Services know from our work with this population is that they would rather stay home. We serve some 800,000 refugees, some in Europe but most in countries bordering Syria that are straining under refugee loads much higher than Europe's.

These refugees are not leaving because they want to, because they see Europe as the Promised Land. They are leaving because they see no other choice. Their home is gone. Friends are dead. Violence arrives suddenly and unpredictably, from around the corner or up in the sky. Their family must be fed, sheltered and clothed. So they leave the only home they have ever known.

What they need more than anything, more even than our compassion, is peace.

So it is important that in the same week that the number of refugees reaching Europe topped the million mark that the United Nations Security Council approved a diplomatic roadmap that could lead to a negotiated settlement to the war in Syria.

A settlement that brings an end to the fighting is the only thing that is going to stop these already unimaginable numbers from going higher. A real and lasting peace would see these numbers go down drastically as Syrians streamed home from neighboring countries.

So, as 2016 begins, our resolution as a nation and as a compassionate people must be to do all we can to push everyone down that road map toward peace, even as we welcome and support the refugees who are fleeing.

The number one million must do more than get our attention. It must make everyone realize the scope of this disaster and the need for peace. And it must make us all work hard to get there.

Or else we are on our way to 2,000,000.

Bill O'Keefe is Vice President for Advocacy at Catholic Relief Services, the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States.