About the Author: Todd Pierce serves as Public Affairs Advisor in the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.
The Secretary of State was unable to make it due to injury, and CNN anchorman Anderson Cooper was stymied when the bad weather cancelled his flight. But this year’s World Refugee Day event was a hit nonetheless, with moving speeches by Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie and by three refugees who resettled in the United States.
Today's event, one of several worldwide sponsored by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), commemorates the resilience of displaced people around the world and raises awareness of their needs. Drawing on the theme “Real People – Real Needs,” this year’s 90-minute ceremony focused the audience’s attention on the human stories behind the sometimes numbing figures we hear about in the stories of displaced people. Ann Curry, host of the popular American morning news show “Today,” served as MC.
Representing the U.S. government, Acting Assistant Secretary Sam Witten thanked UNHCR and other organizations that help refugees, and said supporting them is “in the best part of the U.S. tradition.” UN High Commissioner Antonio Gutteres remembered the two UNHCR staff who died in the line of duty in Pakistan this year, victims of terrorist attacks on humanitarian workers, and thanked the U.S. for its support of UNHCR.
The tech triumph of the event was a live satellite link with the students at the “Obama School” at a refugee camp for Darfuris in eastern Chad. The Washington audience and the students waved at each other, and the young spokesman for the students told us they wished that the school had more teachers. Most of all, he said, he and his classmates wanted to go home.
Angelina Jolie, who has done almost 40 field visits for UNHCR since becoming a Goodwill Ambassador, singled out the resilience of the refugees she had met. She told moving stories of hospitality she received from refugees who were destitute. Later in the day the foundation she created with her partner, actor Brad Pitt, announced a gift of $1 million to UNHCR to help newly displaced people in Pakistan.
Perhaps the most moving moments of the day came from former refugees themselves. The Baral family spoke about being forced out of Bhutan and living in refugee camps in neighboring Nepal. They qualified for resettlement in the United States and moved to Phoenix. They expressed their gratitude to the U.S. government, to UNHCR and all the other groups that have helped them in all phases of their journey. They were realistic about how difficult it can be for refugees who come to the U.S., between culture shock and the recession, but optimistic that life would be better in the United States. Rose Mapendo, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, gave a harrowing account of her time in a Congolese prison . As the mother of 10 children, she was forced to deliver twins by herself, in her cell, with no doctor present. She thanked those who had helped her escape and qualify for resettlement in the U.S. Since her arrival she has founded a non-profit group to draw attention to the plight of refugees and to help recently arrived refugees adapt to life in the United States.