Yesterday, June 20th, was World Refugee Day, a day intended to reflect on refugee issues and think about the 43 million individuals who are currently displaced worldwide. (Check out these powerful photographs to help put a human face to the many refugee conflicts taking place.) To capture the sentiments of the day UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, "Refugees leave because they have no choice. We must choose to help.”
I have realized that there are, in fact, many people who want to help refugees and do care deeply about displaced persons. Two days ago I attended a Capitol Hill reception in honor of World Refugee Day and recently deceased Congressman Donald Payne, who dedicated a significant portion of his career and his life to bring attention to displaced situations in Africa and around the world. It was inspiring to hear various members of Congress, including the Congressman for whom I am interning, talk about their commitment to address these issues and use their position in government to help those born into harsher circumstances. Perhaps the most touching part was hearing Abdalmageed Haroun, a Darfuri human rights activist who was tortured in prison until Congressman Payne’s person letters to Sudan resulted in his release.
Earlier this week, I also attended a Congressional briefing on United States humanitarian aid and how it can be made more effective. I asked the speakers, many of whom work for religiously affiliated aid groups, if any mechanisms exist to ensure that aid groups are not proselytizing under the guise of humanitarian aid. They explained that many aid groups sign onto ethical standards and personal commitments which forbid proselytism, but no external regulation exists for groups that may want to forward missionary goals when doing aid work.
After reading articles about World Refugee Day, attending these refugee events, and thinking about my own research I have begun to ask many questions about what our ultimate goal is for those who find themselves termed as “refugees.” We know there are estimated to be 43 million individuals currently displaced worldwide, but we do not know what the future of these individuals will be. Ideally, the individuals would be able to return to their home country, but the next best alternative is often seen as resettling these individuals permanently in other countries that are willing to have them.
I will admit that I have grown slightly pessimistic of this option after seeing the many hardships that come with resettling in a new place. During resettlement, families are separated and culture is lost. Individuals do not know how to access mobility, education, or health services in their new country. It was surprising for me to talk with the resettled Bhutani community because, at times, I got the sense that they missed the refugee camps and their old life in Bhutan or Nepal. Although they were persecuted and kicked out of their countries, many wish they had the option to return under better circumstances. Seeing this homesickness not only made me sad, but also made me see something that I often forget to consider—refugees, in fact, did not really choose to leave. They are not immigrants who very deliberately made a decision to leave their homeland in search of a better life. They were kicked out, and there was nothing they could do about it— they had no choice.
Although all of the families I met were very grateful for a chance to come to the United States and start a new life, it is hard to really understand their situation. Seeing the older folks, my parents age or elder than that, made me especially wonder what it would be like to be forced to start all over again in a new place at such a late stage in life. Many people fight to have refugees resettled in other countries and I agree that the United States and other developed nations have a moral obligation to accept refugees from conflicts around the world. We want to help and it is great that the Obama Administration wants to increase our refugee quota.
However, as someone who wants to help, I have realized that we must be more aware of the mindset refugees may have. It is difficult to learn a new language, make new friends, and grow accustomed to an entirely new culture. Many are yearning to go home, and their sadness or lack of enthusiasm should not be at all surprising to us. I know that I would certainly be angry and very homesick to learn that I could never return to the United States.
At the recent Kenan-sponsored Undergraduate Winter Forum we discussed all the options for refugees’ living situation after fleeing. Some felt that camps were the best temporary solution until refugees could return to their homes, while most advocated for resettlement as a durable solution. Yet, I wonder what the refugees truly want. Is resettlement in a new country the life they imagined for themselves? Probably not.