All over the world on June 20, nations, organizations and individuals are coming together to commemorate World Refugee Day to honor their courage and resilience of refugees and the dedication and generosity of those who help them.
I have witnessed the different stages of refugees’ often harrowing journeys. I have seen their courage. And I have seen the dedication of those who help them along the way. I am in awe of both.
The horrors that force people to become refugees are hard to fathom. I traveled to western Uganda last July to visit the Bubukwanga transit center set up for Congolese refugees. Sixty-five thousand of them had poured across the border in just 72 hours, after rebels attacked a town on the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The United Nations Refugee Agency -- UNHCR -- rushed in to help them, setting up a temporary camp in an empty field. It was pouring rain. The mud was up over the tops of our shoes. There was no road yet and trucks couldn’t get up the hill to deliver water. There were tiny kids, one-year-olds who could barely walk, staggering around in the mud. One child was alone. He was naked and had no shoes. He was just sitting in the mud crying.
He was one of the lucky ones. He had found refuge in this place, where UNHCR was turning chaos into order, building tents, latrines, and recreational areas for kids.
Escaping to the relative safety of a camp or foreign city is just the beginning of an ordeal that typically lasts for many years. Some live in camps for decades. Less than 1 percent of the world's refugees get accepted for resettlement in a third country. And this process can be protracted, difficult, and confusing, both for refugees who live in camps and for those who live in cities.
In a refugee center in Bangkok, Thailand, I met with some of the refugees and asylum seekers from some 30 countries that crowd into the city’s slums. No matter where they came from, whether they were illiterate farmers, or had once been doctors, lawyers, or economists, they had some things in common. They desperately wanted to work and they wanted their children to be able to attend school. But instead they were waiting, officially barred from working, struggling to pay for rent and groceries and afraid of being detained and deported for being in the country illegally.
Very few of these refugees can be resettled, and because there are long backlogs, just getting an appointment to register as a refugee can take a year or more.
I have witnessed not just the anxiety of the long wait, but the joy of seeing it come to an end. In Bangkok, I spoke with a Tamil man who had fled Sri Lanka in 2008. He was about to be resettled in the United States in Georgia so he was attending a cultural orientation class -- the kind we fund around the world wherever we process refugees for resettlement. These classes offer instruction in words and pictures on everything from boarding a plane to moving into an apartment and using refrigerators and ovens, door locks, showers, and garbage disposals. Imagine how bewildering it must be, especially for refugees who have never used electricity or ridden in a car.
Yet, in a short time, many refugees are not only self-sufficient but striving for success. In Buffalo, the refugee kids I met weren’t just aiming to get high school diplomas. They were determined to earn college degrees and three young men spoke of their dreams of becoming a doctor, an engineer, and a professional musician.
Last year, nearly 70,000 refugees got a new start in the United States and we aim to admit roughly as many this year, from more than 60 nations. We commend and encourage their courage and hard work, their engagement in civic life, their efforts to educate themselves and their children and become American citizens in the fullest sense of the word. They bring cultural diversity to the United States. They bring qualities that Americans have prided themselves on throughout their history: courage, resilience, openness to new experiences, and determination to remake themselves in this new land. And to our humanitarian partners all over the world: please continue working and raising your voices on behalf of world’s most vulnerable people, and thank you for making World Refugee Day truly something to celebrate.
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