But the queen quieted the crowd by describing the Syrian refugee crisis, which has particularly affected people the same age as the altruistic youths who gathered in St. Paul. She spoke of “the particularly vicious war that is raging in Syria. As in every war, the most vulnerable victims — no matter who wins or who loses — are young people. Their dreams, their hopes, their childhoods are being stolen in a war they had no part in creating, in which they have no voice. This is above all else a children’s crisis.”
And it’s about to get worse.
The United Nations estimates that by the end of 2014 more than half of those who lived in Syria before the brutal civil war will be either internally displaced within Syria or will have sought refuge in neighboring nations.
Relieving refugees’ plight is a human-rights issue, said Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, who recently spoke at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. In an interview, Roth said that “people tend to think of human rights as oppressive governments, focus on international humanitarian law and the Geneva Convention. But humanitarian assistance is also a legal right.”
Queen Noor agreed in a post-speech interview. She noted the hope represented in the Minnesota kids, and wanted them to know how important that hope is to the desperate, destitute children on the run inside Syria or in places like the Za’atari Camp in Jordan, which is the world’s second-largest refugee camp.
“Their voices are important in that they speak out for young people around the world that are in a crisis like this,” the queen said. “That they don’t let anyone forget how important it is that we don’t let millions of young people lose their hope for their future, and that they lose their ability to become positive change agents to rebuild their countries.”
The impact isn’t just regional, Queen Noor warned. “It isn’t a problem divorced from Minnesota or Europe or Africa. It is the kind of crisis that can have a spillover effect if it isn’t addressed to the best of our abilities. If we can ensure that we do not lose entire populations to despair and utter hopelessness, then we can have hope moving forward.”
Queen Noor’s recognition that rebuilding Syrian society will be that much more difficult if young people lose hope for the future does not mean she isn’t closely focused on the present. She expressed appreciation for ongoing relief efforts, especially considering the challenging context.
“It is the largest humanitarian relief effort that has probably ever been undertaken like this, but it is at a time of a global economic crisis,” she said, then added that “it is important to remember that there are local people [in Jordan] who are struggling themselves, but giving everything they can.”
The queen also acknowledged local organizations, like the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee, along with other nongovernmental organizations bringing relief to the region. But it goes beyond basic needs: NGOs are “very important because they are the ones who help promote understanding and raise their voices.”
Those voices can be amplified by media.
“The media often will provide excellent coverage around the world — the conditions in the camps and the numbers coming in,” the queen said. “But at the same time, there is so much to cover throughout the world that the media will often just move on to the next crisis, or the next situation, and consider their job done on that particular issue. And where you have issues of this humanitarian degree of catastrophe, it is important that you do not forget.”
Queen Noor also hopes that the throngs at We Day harness their generation’s transformative technologies to change their world.
“In this hyper-connected world, those connections can be used for good and they can be used for great mischief and even evil,” she mused. “I think Free the Children [which organizes We Day] is helping them develop a dimension of understanding of what their connectivity can lead to in terms of tangible benefits to the rest of the world. … I think this program is giving a very concrete example of what it can mean on a positive local as well as global scale. I think this is what young people need right now — they need this kind of example.”
Queen Noor is right. But it’s not just young people: Everyone should support Syrians’ meeting their immediate needs so they can someday piece together their shattered society.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.