On Thanksgiving, think of the refugee children

Story highlights

  • Caryl Stern: When I think about the Syrian refugees, I think of the children who are the most vulnerable
  • On this Thanksgiving, remember that children don't choose the countries they're born into or the conflicts around them

Caryl M. Stern is president and CEO of U.S. Fund for UNICEF. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Thanksgiving is usually the time I try to figure out how to cook the best turkey, make great pumpkin pies and figure out how many more people -- that friend of a friend -- I can add to the already-full table.

But, this year, on one of America's most beloved holidays, my thoughts are filled with images of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut that left 173 dead. These attacks are searing reminders of the global insecurity and conflict that surround us.
Given this tragic reality, it's a wonder that we're debating about admitting Syrian refugees to our country. Americans are asking: "Why should we stick with the U.S. government's plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016? Why risk our own safety for strangers?"
    Caryl M. Stern
    Some have responded to these fears by calling for refugees to be selected for asylum on the basis of their religion. Others have advocated that we reject all Syrian refugees regardless of their faith.
    While it's necessary to keep America safe, these responses are terribly wrong. Worse, they miss some very important facts we should all keep in mind as Thanksgiving approaches -- with its warm call to gather with our families and include others we may not know.
    Editorials, letters to Congress and social media posts from Americans across the country have rightly pointed out that discriminating against refugees because of their religion or country of origin is deeply un-American. Many have noted the rigorous, multiyear screening process refugees must go through before they can cross our borders, including extensive vetting by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, among other agencies.
    More important is a much-needed reality check about the causes of the Syrian refugee crisis and the motivations of fleeing Syrians. As many have emphasized, Syrians are leaving their country precisely because they must endure on a daily basis the violence and terror that Paris and other cities have suffered.
    The civil war there has forced 10.5 million Syrians to flee their homes, with 4.5 million living in parts of Syria too dangerous for aid organizations to reach. More than 4 million have had to flee abroad because of violence and the total breakdown of society, including access to food, water, shelter, and other basic necessities.
    But, perhaps because I'm the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who came to this country as a girl and was lucky enough to be admitted -- in contrast to my grandfather, also a Holocaust refugee, who was turned away from our shores -- when I think about the Syrian refugees, I think of the children.
    More than 2 million of the Syrian refugees actually are children. In addition, among the nearly 1 million immigrants who have fled to Europe so far this year, there are more than 214,000 children —an unprecedented number in recent history. Moreover, of the 18,000 Syrians referred by the United Nations for possible asylum in this country next year, more than half of them are children, too.
    Many Syrian refugee children have already experienced things we would never want our children -- or any children -- to endure: war, the death of family members, the loss of their homes and traumatic journeys by land and sea. Some have become separated from their parents or families, too. In Sweden alone, the total number of unaccompanied children has reached a staggering 24,000, for instance.
    These refugee children have urgent needs I can't forget as I prepare for Thanksgiving this year: winterized shelter, health care, schooling, counseling and appropriate protection for separated children to prevent child trafficking, sexual abuse and exploitation.
    So, if you hear of plans to exclude Syrian refugees from asylum here, remember that children don't choose the countries they are born into, or the conflicts around them. Children are children wherever they are.
    I urge you to ask your governors, senators, and representatives -- and all the people you know -- to keep in mind the proverbial spirit of Thanksgiving. After all, it commemorates the moment when Native Americans generously shared their harvest with some of this country's first refugees, the Pilgrims, fleeing religious persecution in England.
    Even in the midst of understandable turmoil, doubt and grief, we have to find room at the crowded Thanksgiving table for that friend of a friend we don't know. We must care for the most vulnerable among us. We must put children first.