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

Your Manicure Will Never be the Same – World Refugee Day

Today is World Refugee Day. I had forgotten and did a post on how my life is like a box of crayons. The irony of this hit me.

My life is like crayons because of privilege and choice. A refugee can’t even use that analogy because there is no choice. They leave because they have to. 43 million people leave their homes and countries and begin the arduous process of rebuilding.

Today I have a passport and a home, I have friends and family who have never had to flee any country, I have children who are safe and clothed and when I birthed them I had good prenatal care, ensuring as healthy a start as possible.

Today I get up and eat a healthy breakfast, walk to pick up a rental car and head off to a job that pays well. All this is what the refugee longs for and looks for. In honor of world refugee day I am taking down the post on my “Crayon Box” life and posting on a community that through hard work and resilience has made this transition and built a new life. Thank you for reading!

What do immigrant dreams and Hollywood have to do with your manicure? Turns out – almost everything!

Whether the north shore of Boston, Phoenix, or Cambridge, when I go get a manicure or pedicure I am met at the door by savvy, professional Vietnamese women.

An example of a French Manicure, acrylic nails...

They usher me in and authoritatively say“Pick your color!” I am suddenly no longer in control; instead it’s Linh or Mai or Minh who will dictate where I sit, where I stand and when I’ll leave. They know their business and they do it well.

Like any immigrant story, the story of Vietnamese and nail salons is one of ingenuity, resilience and hard work. It also has the fairytale element of a movie star and a dream.

It begins with Tippi Hedren, an actress best known for her roles in Alfred Hitchcock films. Beyond her stage career Tippi was committed to international relief. She was working with Food for the Hungry in a refugee camp in California when several women, refugees from Vietnam, admired her manicure. An idea was borne that she brought to her manicurist: Could the manicurist come to the camp on weekends and teach women this skill?

She could and she did. Through this seemingly small act, a business and dream was born. The skill set allowed for employment when families were desperate for income and within a short time Vietnamese refugees had both started and captured the market of affordable nail care. Until Tippi Hedron and the women  taught by her manicurist came onto the scene, manicures were an unaffordable luxury, limited only to those who had wealth and time.

A school in California called the Advance Beauty College, teaching manicuring, cosmetology and massage, has graduated over 25,000 students. Clients looking for a bargain benefit from the discounts offered as students work on their nails, able to  clock in the hours needed for a license from the state. While not only Vietnamese attend, they make up the largest percentage of students in the school profile.

It is a classic case study on the igenuity of refugees and immigrants. As I think about nail salons, looked on by most as merely a “service” industry, I am amazed and humbled at their skill, business savvy and ability to build a small empire. Indeed, my manicures will never be the same.

It’s also a good example of the principles of community development. Too often instead of teaching skills and working alongside a community, outsiders dictate to the community what they should do and how they should do it. Taking advantage of an opportunity and learning this skill gave a displaced refugee community a livelihood and a way to start over after dramatic and traumatic events changed their lives. All of this was focused toward building a new life and a future. Would that all could find their niche spots as they ride the waves of grief, loss and renewal in a new world.


Today is World Refugee Day….But What About Tomorrow?

Monday, June 20th, 2011 – World Refugee Day is recognized today. Thanks to my daughter and one of her friends I am reminded that this one day is set aside so we can remember, we can honor, and we can collectively advocate for refugees. Today’s post is a thoughtful, beautifully written reflection by one of my daughter’s friends Brittany Gonzalez. See the original and link to her blog at Writingpeaces.  Some facts to remember as you read:

  1. The number of displaced people is at a 15-year high. 
  2. Poor countries host 80% of refugees.
  3. Afghanistan & Iraq are ‘top source’ countries. (Source:

“…and then they raped me. With their bodies, with their guns, with sticks. Over and over until I was no longer human.” She looks down at her hands, ashamed, and repeats the last part, “I’m no longer human…” She begins to cry and I offer her my hand, but she doesn’t take it. Instead she finds the nerve to look me in the eye and apologize for the horrors she has just unloaded on me. In her arms, she holds a tiny bundle, the product of a nightmare. A human life that never should have existed, a living testament to the horrors she endured, and now – the only thing giving her a reason to live.

I want to tell her that everything will be alright. I want to give her hope and comfort. I want to empty my wallet in order to help her create some semblance of a stable life. I want to scream. Instead, I press on with the interview, somewhat grateful that my shaking hands are hidden behind the screen of my Macbook. God forbid I should appear weak in the face of atrocity.

I finish the interview, assure her that her resettlement case will be written up and submitted to the UNHCR for review, knowing full well it will be months before they look at it and another few months before they return with an answer, most likely denying her the opportunity to move to a place where she can be free from persecution, from fear.

She stands up to leave, to shake my hand and thank me for taking the time to listen. With her hand in mine, I look her in the eyes, searching for the right words, desperate to say the right thing. The words will never seem right, but I can try. “You are human. I see you sitting in front of me, exuding strength. You are human. I see how you love your child. You are human, and none of this is your fault.” She manages a thin smile, stroking her baby’s face with the pad of her thumb, unsure of how to respond. After a few moments of silence she says, “thank you, I know there is not much you can do for me. I just needed to tell my story.”

She leaves, and I lock myself in the office bathroom, crumble to the floor, and cry. After a few minutes there is a knock on the door:

“Brittany, your next client is here.”

Today is World Refugee Day. One day a year set aside for the world to honor and advocate for those who have been displaced by war and persecution. Mothers who have seen their children die at the hands of hatred, husbands who have watched their wives raped repeatedly as a tactic of war. Men and women who have endured torture for their political views, only to escape to a country where they will be persecuted again – for the color of their skin, for their inability to speak the language, for pursuing their human right to live, and to live free.

Today is World Refugee Day, and in cities across the globe, people are preparing for the celebrations. Community centers are throwing international themed parties, museums are showing special exhibits, the UNHCR is posting excessively on Facebook. Today is World Refugee day, but what about tomorrow?

Tomorrow, the war against illegal immigrants will rage on in the United States. In England. Italy will intercept a boatload of Libyans fleeing war and send them back to their deaths. Americans living near the U.S./Mexico border will take up arms to protect themselves from those who are brave enough to leave the only life they have ever known in search of hope. The Egyptian military will exercise its state-sponsored right to shoot and kill anyone seen attempting to cross the Egypt/Israel border illegally. Hundreds will die in North Korean labor camps, and dozens will be sentenced to death in China for daring to send out a potentially political tweet. Another child will be tortured and killed in Syria, a homosexual will be murdered in Uganda, and the main story on CNN will be about the latest sex scandal in Washington D.C.

I’m thankful that there is an entire day dedicated to raising awareness about the plight of refugees, and to honoring those who have survived unimaginable atrocity. All I’m asking, is that tomorrow, we don’t forget them. That we will continue to tell their stories. We are all human, and we all deserve to be acknowledged – to have our rights acknowledged – EVERY DAY.

On this, World Refugee Day, I ask you to help us help refugees find a place to call home. ~ High Commissioner António Guterres