Tag Archives: Syrian refugee crisis

Building Bridges, From Staples To Syria

Kion Bruno’s mother — eye surgeon Dr.  Aryan Shayegani — is a 1st-generation Iranian American.

Neighbors on their road here in Westport include a 1st-generation Palestinian neurosurgeon, a Pakistani man, and a family that hosted Iraqi refugees.

“They’re all pillars of society,” Kion says. “And they’re all Middle Eastern.”

Kion Bruno

At Staples High School — where the 11th grader is a varsity tennis player, and founder of the squash team — he hears occasional terrorist “jokes.”

“With the current presidential administration, there’s been a definite increase in xenophobia,” Kion says. “We need to bridge the gap.”

He’s doing his part. Along with several others, Kion started a Building Bridges club at Staples. Already they’ve brought in a few speakers: Iranian American women, to talk about their lives in Iran (very similar to the US, Kion says); Palestinian neurosurgeon Dr. Khalid Abbed, who grew up very poor and whose son now goes to Staples, and Tarek Alasil, a Syrian refugee training to be an ophthalmologist.

The group also arranged a Skype call with teenagers in Iran.

Now they’re reaching out to audiences beyond Staples. On Saturday, April 1 (3 p.m., Staples auditorium), Building Bridges will sponsor a screening of “Salam Neighbor.”

It’s directed by Greens Farms Academy graduates Zach Ingrasci and Chris Temple, who lived in a Syrian refugee camp. The film provides an intimate look at that horrific humanitarian crisis.

Congressman Jim Himes will be featured in the panel discussion that follows the screening, along with First Selectman Jim Marpe.

Other panelists include a Syrian refugee, being hosted in Westport; Ali Majeed, an Iraqi refugee who was hosted here and is now training to be a dentist; Claudia Connor, president and CEO of the International Institute of Connecticut resettlement program; John McGeehan of Westport Interfaith Refugee Settlement, and Megan Laney, a Westport native studying in Syria who was evacuated when the war began.

Senator Chris Murphy is sending a personalized video.

The suggested donation is $10. All proceeds benefit local and international refugee agencies and charities.

“Our community has the choice to stand by passively,” Kion says. “Or we can unite, and act to make a difference.”

He and his organization of teenagers have already built a bridge to the Middle East. Now the rest of us must cross it.

 

Ken Bernhard: Syrian Crisis Is Of “Biblical Proportions”

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

Ken Bernhard

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.

Syria Fund logoWestporters have reacted “very generously” to his pleas for help through the Syria Fund, Bernhard says.

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.”

Many current Syrian refugees are middle class, Ken Bernhard says.

Many current Syrian refugees are middle class, Ken Bernhard says.

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.)