A prize that calls to hearts

"For the United States it would be as though in a few months the entire populations of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland showed up on the East Coast bringing with them only the clothes on their backs and half of them sick."m

This is the stark means of conveying Africa's refugee crisis used by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Denmark's Poul Hartling, in an article in this newspaper last spring. The awarding of the 1981 Nobel Peace Prize to the high commissioner's office yesterday is a timely reminder of its work for 10 million refugees around the world -- and of the continued great need to support all channels of relief for the displaced and homeless in the family of man.

The Nobel committee must have been tempted by the headline value of a contender like Poland's Solidarity leader, Lech Walesa, especially since the UN office had won the Peace Prize before. But the magnitude of the refugees' plight, despite notable achievements in aiding them, amply warrants the recognition of efforts on their behalf as a contribution to peace.

For the addition of refugees to a country's challenges can threaten stability and invite conflict. In the current focus on US military aid to Sudan, for example, the fact must not be overlooked that this nation had economic problems worsened by taking on more than its share of refugees. Somalia, too -- with more than 1.5 million refugees added to a population of 4 million -- was mentioned by the high commissioner in describing how the burden of Africa's five million refugees is not spread equally over this huge continent. As for Asia, beyond the publicized exodus from Indochina there is the tide from Soviet-invaded Afghanistan to Pakistan -- recently estimated at more than 2.2 million persons since 1978.

What can individuals do to express their compassion, to accompany their prayers, for the uprooted? In last year's Monitor series, "Refugee crisis: helping the world's homeless," relief officials suggested a number of options that still apply: Keep informed; the refugees are there even when not on the nightly news. Join a local refugee assistance group. Help sponsor a refugee in your community. Invite a refugee leader to talk at your club. Urge local broadcasters to hold refugee forums. Get young people interested in refugee problems. Hold fund-raising events such as car washes or walking marathons; the prime need of relief organizations remains financial support.

The Peace Prize calls not to despair over the seeming endlessness of the situation but to the sense of possibility that humankind can draw upon when things look darkest. The work for refugees has shown results in the past and, if vigorously pursued, it can prove again what the high commissioner wrote:

"My experience has been that efforts to help refugees have not been in vain. The refugees of yesterday are not the refugees of today."

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