In Honor of Resilience – World Refugee Day 2013

Definition of a refugee: Someone who has been forced to flee their country and is unable or unwilling to return because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership of particular social group or political opinion.” – 1951 Refugee Convention.

There are over 43 million refugees and displaced people worldwide.  The sheer number overwhelms. One day out of the year people come together from around the world to honor refugees. Honor them for their courage. Honor them for their strength. Honor them for their resilience.

Some facts:

  • Refugees have no choice. They leave their homes because of violence, conflict, or persecution.
  • There are three “durable solutions” for refugees: Repatriation (going back to their homes once a level of stability is reached and the threat is over); local integration (rebuilding their lives in the place where they first sought refuge);resettlement (relocation to a third country where they can settle)
  • In a refugee crisis 75 percent of those displaced are women and children.
  • The main source of refugee law is the 1951 Geneva Convention. This gives guidelines on legal protection, assistance and rights of the refugee.
  • Currently globally displaced people are at an all time 18-year high “More people are refugees or internally displaced than at any time since 1994, with the crisis in Syria having emerged as a major new factor in global displacement.” UNHCR Global Trends Report.  The report doesn’t include the increase in numbers from the last few months of war in Syria.
  • 55% of the refugees cited in the report come from war-torn countries: Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan.

Those are facts.

But facts live better in our minds through stories. So here’s a story:

In a small refugee clinic just blocks from Taksim Square I meet a woman from Syria. She came from Syria a year before. She is one of the 1.6 million Syrian refugees who have fled Syria in the past year. She is carrying a beautiful, but heavy, eight-year old boy. He can’t walk himself, he has cerebral palsy. She has been unable to get him seen by a doctor, unable to get him much-needed physical therapy for over a year. She knows that physical therapy is critical to his muscles, to make sure they don’t weaken but stay as strong as possible.

She’s doing what she can, trying to remember all the muscle strengthening exercises she was taught before coming, but she is worried. She carries him up four flights of stairs in order to have him seen by a motley group of nurses with no supplies. When we compliment her on her care, she looks surprised. “Why wouldn’t I care for him? He’s my son”. There’s little thought of herself, it’s about this child and her other children, their welfare. It’s about rebuilding and finding a life for themselves in a new place with a new language. It’s about taking one step after another, without thinking about how heavy the steps are, how painful – just one step after another.

Maybe tomorrow will be better. Maybe tomorrow she’ll be able to get him physical therapy. Tomorrow, God willing – there’s always a tomorrow.

It makes the dictionary definition of resilience look positively foolish. The real meaning of resilience lies in people — in their faces, in their eyes, in their tears, in their day by day willingness to go on.

So today I honor the resilience of refugees – those who day on day get up, try to understand paper work, wait for their asylum papers, seek health care, wait for a chance to rebuild and heal.

“In all the years I have worked on behalf of refugees, this is the most worrying I have ever witnessed. The needs of these people are overwhelming; their anguish is unbearable. Today, there are over 1.6 million registered Syrian refugees. More than one million of them arrived just in the last six months, and thousands more come every day, seeking places to stay, sustenance, someone who will listen and help them heal.” excerpt from statement for World Refugee Day 2013 by António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees

17 thoughts on “In Honor of Resilience – World Refugee Day 2013

  1. I love this post! Thanks for it!
    Unfortunately Australia isn’t particulary welcoming of refugees (we regularly get illegal boats arriving, and these people often spend years in detention centers), I think the saddest think is the reasons that are voiced the loudest for them to leave are ones of money (it will cost us – taxes, jobs, housing, education etc), safety (lazy/untrustworthy) and difference (they don’t share our values – religious, human rights/gender). I find this attitude bizzare as so many Australians are the decendants of migrants. It is as if there is this belief that someone entering illegally wants some thing entirely different for themselves as someone who comes legally. Fear and entitlement seems to be behind most of peoples objections. It is a shame what we gain in humility from learning anothers story, or from the long term perspective of what will be contributed (ie food!!) is overlooked.
    I find it particularly difficult to hear it from Christians, considering so much of the Bible is stories of God’s people living as captives or in exile – and over and over again the people of God are called to care for orphans, widows and foreigners. And at the end of the day we need to remember that “all the earth is [God’s] and everything in it” (Psalm 50).


  2. I’m hesitant to write this comment, because I don’t want to falsely compare the physical danger that political refugees are in to my own personal struggles, but the definition of refugee you quote reminds me of how often the Church can create spiritual refugees because of its own prejudice against political parties, ideologies, orientations, theologies, etc. I know I’ve felt like a spiritual refugee at times.


    1. I think you’re right. I think there are spiritual refugees. Thanks for giving me this to think about. Where is the asylum for spiritual refugees?


      1. Without sounding trite let me offer Deuteronomy 33: 27 as spiritual asylum: “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” Some of us have felt like spiritual refugees at times. These words remind us of hope and security.


  3. Thank you for this excellent article! You are so right: the hope of those refugees for a better future and the incredible strenght to persevere in those contitions deserves more than honor.


    1. Thanks so much for sharing the article on twitter as well. I have this thing that when I get in the shower and experience the wonder of running water that my mind always goes to refugee camps. The idea of year after year being displaced until the refugee camp actually becomes your home…it’s unreal to me and profoundly sad. Thanks for reading.


  4. It’s so hard to imagine how hard it must be for refugees, to be forced to leave your country, your family, all your memories, the fear and trauma associated with what they have been through. The family.I lived with for a in the north of England also took in another family of four.from Kosovo that year. It was quite an experience just living along side them, hearing their experiences of persecution from their neighbours.


  5. A few years ago our family helped a refugee family that had just arrived in MN. We brought them to the grocery store and bank and helped them in simple ways. I was shocked to learn that they had been living in a refugee camp for 17 YEARS! The couple were just teenagers when their families fled to the camp – what was suppose to be a temporary safe place became the place that they met and started their family. The conditions were crowded and they were not permitted to work in the country of the camp (except for odd jobs that they could sometimes find). Such a huge part of what gives people purpose was taken away from them. These people were farmers in their former life but spent most days in the refugee camp playing volleyball to give them something to do. Now they are in our country and are having to learn how to care for their family and make up for the lost years. We hear of refugees fleeing war torn countries and don’t realize that years later many of them are still living in camps unable to return to their homes. Another woman I met had lived in a camp for 28 years (most of her life), that just blows my mind and seems so wrong. Yes – anyone who can still have hope for a future and persevere through that deserves honor.


    1. I’m so glad you shared these stories. 17 years. 28 years. It’s mind boggling. The other thing is the misconceptions that others have around refugees. Many think it’s a free ticket – They have 3 – 6 months to repay every penny of the dollars spent on travel. This causes a huge problem with unscrupulous people who give loans to repay and charge huge amounts of interest. This is completely unregulated but happens all the time. Thanks so much for your comment.


    1. Thanks Jenny – there’s so much to learn. It’s an area I’ve been trying to work in more regularly for a long time but still am at the fringes.


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