Today we are branching out from our usual photographic posts to post something our daughter wrote. We are so very proud of Mara and the work she has been a part of with programs in countries with high refugee populations, so in honor of World Refugee Day 2014, we’ve posted her thoughts below.
Today UNHCR, the UN’s refugee relief organization, released their Global Trends report, detailing the numbers of refugees in the world, by country of displacement. The numbers are staggering.
These three countries combined account for over half of all the refugees in the world. The global number of refugees is now higher than it has been since World War II, encompassing over 51.2 million individuals, 6 million more than last year.
Today is World Refugee Day, and this year, UNHRC has a special “1 campaign,” and following that trend, the theme of today is “1 Family Torn Apart by War is Too Many,” and having personally witnessed only touches of war’s impact on civilian lives, I cannot agree more.
I’ve had the distinct honor of working with refugees from many countries in the Middle East, in two capacities, where I’ve witnessed their struggles and resilience through different lenses.
My first experience with refugees was working in an orphanage, where the majority of children are believed to be refugees from at least three countries. In this region, orphanages differ from our own. They are generally considered temporary homes until a child’s (usually single) parent can care for them again, or until they find placement with an aunt, uncle, grandparent, etc. However, with many of these refugee children, they don’t necessarily know if their parents are still alive, or if they will make it across the border to be reunited. Unfortunately, some children do know that they have no family left. Although the children are not admitted to this orphanage until the age of five, they’ve often forgotten their last name.
The workers at the orphanage were wonderful. They encouraged the children to bond like siblings, and the staff act as mothers and fathers in addition to teachers and caregivers.
My role there was to act as an older sister, someone closer to their age, with whom they could feel like family. We immediately saw the impact this made on the children. They were happier, more agreeable to rules, and fought less with each other. I additionally was responsible for organizing their library, so that they could find age appropriate books and toys more easily. On my last day there, I played soccer with the boys, and I could tell we had become close, because the usually stoic, polite, and distant boys were now making fun of my terrible soccer skills. It was hard to say goodbye after 2 months.
Twice now I have traveled internationally for a two week span to assist with cleft lip and palate repair and research. During this research, I have conducted long form interviews with mothers of children with clefts. About half of these families were refugees.
Since the research is focused on finding potential environmental factors that might cause clefting, I came to know many details of their personal lives. Many families live with several other families in small homes. Most do not have access to clean water. Most do not have regular access to food. Many report their children go to school hungry. Many report their family lives in fear.
Since UNHCR dedicates today to celebrating the resilience of refugees, I would like to share two of many success stories from these experiences.
1) When I was working at the orphanage, one of the oldest boys had just enrolled at a university in the United States on a full scholarship. He was the first child from this orphanage to go to college, and the orphanage agreed to sponsor his living expenses.
2) Upon leaving the second cleft repair mission, we decided to hire one of the research assistants as a full time employee. He has lived in a refugee camp his entire life, and recently finished his studies at university in biology and medical laboratory sciences. He is one of the most intelligent and driven individuals I’ve had the pleasure to meet.
I would encourage everyone to take a minute today and think of how you can help individuals in refugee camps. I know monetary commitments are hard, but in-kind donations of food, blankets, etc are always welcome in the camps. And I encourage everyone to remember, 1 Family Torn Apart by War is Too Many.
For more stories and ways to help please visit stories.unhcr.org.