In the wake of the Paris terror attacks, more than 30 governors have said their states will not accept Syrian refugees.
Connecticut’s Democratic governor, on the other hand, personally welcomed a family diverted from Indianapolis to New Haven.
A former Republican legislator from Westport thinks that’s great.
Ken Bernhard is not just reacting to the news of the day. He’s been concerned with refugees’ plights since the crisis began several years ago. A noted attorney, he helped found The Syria Fund. That 501(c)(3) provides education, medical supplies, household goods and food to families living in dire, desperate areas underserved by large, mainstream organizations.
Bernhard’s humanitarian efforts began at a typical suburban setting: a cocktail party. A woman who’d studied in Syria told him about the refugee crisis brewing in the Mideast.
Bernhard had taught under a UNESCO program in Jordan. He recalled the “lovely, hospitable, generous people” he’d met, and vowed to help.
The refugees who began fleeing Syria nearly a year ago are primarily middle class, he says. Rich and poor Syrians left a long time ago; store owners and professionals thought they’d be able to “hunker down.” Now they’re leaving their embattled land with only what they can carry. Up to 80,000 are jammed into temporary camps.
The former elected official — he’s been Westport’s 3rd selectman and served 4 terms in the Connecticut General Assembly, including a stint as assistant minority leader — is wary of politicians who “advocate simple solutions to complex situations.”
The US has been actively involved in the Middle East for 70 years, he notes. Our actions — like supporting the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein (“until we turned against him”) — have helped sow the seeds of the current dangerous problems.
“I don’t think we can turn a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis that’s partly the result of our own actions,” Bernhard says. “We’ve had the advantage of an ocean between here and there. Now we’ve got a choice with these refugees: step up or not.”
He is not naive about the need for security. But, he insists, “the process to get here is so arduous. These are people who have been seeking sanctuary for years. In 2 trips over there, I’ve never seen people hostile to the US.”
He adds, “what are these millions of people fleeing Syria supposed to do? If we don’t help, the problem will migrate. We’ll have to deal with it somewhere else.”
Bernhard calls the conditions in the migrants’ camps appalling. Families sit idle in the hot (and cold) desert. Children grow up there knowing no other life. “If we don’t educate them, and give them employment and prospects for hope, these are the young men who will turn to ISIS,” he says.
He is proud of what The Syria Fund has accomplished — with help from his fellow Westporters. As long as refugees need aid, he’ll continue raising funds.
“This is America. This is Westport,” Bernhard says. “It’s a mass migration — a crisis of biblical proportions. We’re witnesses to it. We all have an obligation to step up and do something about it.”
(To learn more about The Syria Fund, including how to contribute, click here.)