United Nations World Refugee Day
Last year, 2016 was declared the deadliest year on record for refugees trying to reach Europe. Images flooding the media of increasing instances of displacement and fatality served only a small percentage of the full-scale issue. Observed on 20 June every year, World Refugee Day aims to honour men, women, and children fleeing their homes under threat of danger and persecution.
For World Refugee Day, we have put together a piece to reflect upon how we as a society can help, how Oxford is making a difference, and the bravery of those who find themselves displaced.
We will hear from a Masters student on Skyping a refugee’s wedding to relatives at home, and delivering a TEDx talk on refugee stereotypes; a researcher paving the way for refugee-led refugee help through microfinance and arts and crafts; an MBA graduate working in a start-up to help refugees re-enter the workforce; a Professor working with Oxford student doctors to end psychological and cultural isolation; and the story of the editor of the world’s most widely read publication on forced migration, along with his memories and photos of the Rwandan Genocide.
These are their stories:
“I held Rana’s cell-phone throughout the evening so that her family could see the wedding via Skype”
As a Syrian-American, I have met many Syrian refugees in America, Europe, and the Middle East. Some of them have become my best friends, others my mentors and teachers. All have taught me to keep fighting even if the whole world seems to stand against you. Rana’s story is one example of this powerful lesson:
Rana left Aleppo about a year ago. She watched her father cry at the doorway of her childhood home as he said goodbye to his only daughter. He didn’t stop her from leaving. She couldn’t not leave. She spent about a week traveling through Turkey via bus and train, crossing the Aegean Sea by inflatable boat and continuing through Eastern Europe until she made it to a “camp” in Austria. There are now dozens of these camps across Europe, housing refugees until their ‘status’ is determined. My aunt, who lives in Linz, offered to host this young refugee so that she would not have to live alone in one of these camps. I recently met Rana while visiting my aunt between terms. At first, I could not believe Rana had taken this journey, but the details of her story were too sharp, too vivid, not to be true. She told me how she barely slept for a week, afraid to miss a bus stopping or having her only bag with all her belongings in stolen. She told me about the mud field she crossed on foot, walking for hours without rest, trying to help the older women who were making the same journey alone.
“How did you feel crossing the Aegean sea on an inflatable boat?”
“I didn’t. I couldn’t feel or think. I was just moving, trying to get as far as I could as fast as I could. Being with other Syrians making the same journey gave me some comfort.”
Rana got married a few months ago to a Syrian refugee working as a chef in Linz, Austria. Their wedding was cozy and elegant, full of love, friends in exile, and good Syrian food. I held Rana’s cell-phone throughout the evening so that her family could see the wedding via Skype. I watched her mother cry as she watched her only daughter’s wedding through a computer screen thousands of mile away, back in war-torn Aleppo. I watched Rana beg her mother to stop crying as she, herself, could not hold back the tears on her wedding day. Even so, she looked so beautiful.
“Refugees help themselves and their communities in diverse and meaningful ways”
More people are displaced in the world than ever before, and humanitarian organisations are often overwhelmed with the amount of people in need. Yet alongside formal organisations, refugees help themselves and their communities in significant ways. In Kampala, for example, YARID (Young African Refugees for Integral Development) and the Bondeko Refugee Livelihoods Centre are refugee-led community organisations providing a range of services such as trauma counselling, livelihoods training, language instruction, and microfinance. Beyond formal organisations, examples also abound of informal networks and religious and cultural practices through which refugees respond to community needs. Yet refugee-led initiatives generally find themselves locked out of international sources of funding, unable to meet auditing and accounting criteria, and so remain under the radar and under-researched.
Through qualitative and quantitative research across rural and urban sites in Uganda and Kenya, our research aims to create the first evidence base that systematically and comparatively documents the ways in which refugees engage in the provision of protection and assistance to their own communities, i.e. refugee-led social protection. This previously under-researched topic has the potential to directly contribute to improving the welfare of both refugees and host communities by identifying how external assistance can work in more complementary ways with community-led initiatives. Our policy-relevant academic research highlights that refugees need not inevitably be a ‘burden’ on host states but have the potential to improve the welfare and economies of the host countries in which they reside. Even under the most constrained circumstances, refugees help themselves and their communities in diverse and meaningful ways.
“Every time I try to do something, laws or biases because I am a refugee keep me back. It’s like a curse.”
A few months ago, five young IT engineers between the ages of 24 and 29 took a notoriously difficult programming test administered by a major multinational tech company. They were told not to feel discouraged if they failed, given that this seemed to be the fate of most test-takers and that they should be patting themselves on the back for even trying. Within minutes, each completed the test. When I asked how they thought they did, they told me it was simple and that they were almost disappointed by its lack in challenge. Baffled as an observer, I waited to hear their scores, thinking perhaps they had somehow overlooked hidden complexities within the test’s questions. I soon learned this was not the case. Not only had they all passed, but each received a perfect score: a feat I was told was rarely accomplished.
These exceptionally bright test-takers were all Syrian refugees. Kind, charismatic, and well educated, at one point their futures could not have seemed more vibrant. Yet now, after six years of war, and being forced to live as refugees in foreign countries, they are currently all unemployed with seemingly no path forward.
When I spoke to them, they continuously expressed their desire to get back to work, to put their degrees to use, and to become active members of society again. “It’s like I don’t have an identity anymore,” one said. “I worked hard for my education and want to be productive, but every time I try to do something, laws or biases because I am a refugee keep me back. It’s like a curse.”
Sadly, this is not uncommon. Over the last year, I’ve traveled through Germany, Greece, Turkey, and Lebanon, and heard similar tales from swarms of refugees. In every location, I’ve come across highly intelligent and motivated individuals — PHD candidates, doctors, nurses, scientists, professors, and mathematicians — who for the last few years have tried to rebuild their lives under painfully difficult circumstances, usually with little progress.
When completing my Skoll Apprenticeship I tried to understand why this was the case, examining refugee access to information and opportunity, and the barriers keeping them from thriving. What I discovered was essentially a mess of bureaucratic inaccuracies and inconsistencies mixed with a lack of coordination between service providers, and a misunderstanding of the refugee population’s core needs.
While one can argue the reasons and causes, perhaps most bothersome as a result of all of this is the incredible missed opportunity at hand. With a declining population — in fact the fastest in Europe — Germany alone has a massive labor gap and is yearning for qualified skilled workers. Across the world, 40% of employers complain of difficulty finding employees with the right expertise. Yet at the same time, hundreds of thousands of skilled refugees are left to stay at home without putting their talents to use. Massive opportunities for corporations exist in this reality, but they have yet to recognise their potential and role.
My fear is that by the time the world better understands the opportunity of putting refugee talents to use, it will be too late. By then, their skills may have atrophied and, even worse, their ambition dried. I could tell after just a few years of living under such stress, many of the individuals I’d met had begun to give up. A Syrian architect in Berlin told me, “I was once somebody very valued, now [as a refugee] I am nobody.” For everyone’s benefit, we shouldn’t let that be the case.
“It is hoped that these student doctors can bridge an important and complex divide”
A new initiative in Oxford is trying to find an innovative way to support the health needs of newly arrived unaccompanied minor asylum seekers and Syrian families. A group of 16 clinical medical students, closely working with eight medical doctors, are piloting a matching programme where these newly arrived youths or families have a medical student attached to them for their first year in Oxford. It is hoped that these student doctors can bridge an important and complex divide between what health services might need in short, focused appointments, and the breadth of psychosocial, as well as physical, health support that might be needed for the individuals that have newly arrived.
The medical students will be present for their initial appointment with the general practitioner and then be available to both primary care and the family to ensure that health needs and appointments are understood, appropriate and attended to when needed. The students will be able to provide additional information and support to both the health practitioners and the unaccompanied minors or families. It is hoped that they will also be able to provide mentorship if needed, to link the new arrivals with local families for occasional shared social experiences with the aim that the intense social, cultural and psychological isolation that can often be experienced is brokered and through support, addressed.
The pilot has been funded by money from NHS England (South Central) with the support of the University of Oxford Medical Sciences division and Medical Academics and Clinicians representing Psychiatry, Primary Care, Infectious diseases, Obstetrics and Gynaecology and Psychological Medicine. If this is successful, the plan would be to create supporting hubs of students from medicine as well as nursing, law and social care to ensure that the best holistic and integrated provision of support is given to these families and unaccompanied minors, and that the students graduating from both the University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University are able to learn about the complexities of need for some of the most vulnerable populations in our midst.
“Refugee Day is every day in our office”
I was an English teacher in a government secondary school in a town on the Blue Nile in eastern Sudan when I first had contact with a group of refugees. Their stories of forced resettlement from central to southern Ethiopia, night-time escapes, suffering and losses along the way were as sad as the conditions they were camped in a few kilometres outside town — outsiders kept away, as they “brought diseases” to the river. That was my first experience of prejudice against refugees, and the feeling that the response should and could be more humane. We took them medicines, collected food from shopkeepers in town, and in the end moved these 1,500 people to where conditions should have been better: an official camp hundreds of kilometres away.
It was an experience that formed the next 25 odd years of my working life, working in and on emergency and humanitarian situations around the world. That in turn was the basis for the last nine and a half years as one of the editors of Forced Migration Review. FMR was started in 1987–30 years ago this year — to establish a link through which researchers, practitioners and policy makers could communicate and benefit from each other’s practical experience and research results to the benefit of refugees and other displaced people.
This objective remains the same today, and FMR’s location in the Refugee Studies Centre is great for links with the world of research. But its tentacles reach far across the world, and our authors and readers are also people who work to support policymakers, and displaced people themselves. Refugee Day is every day in our office.
I’m about to retire myself, but I look back on where I’ve been able to meet so many people whose lives had been turned upside down by disaster or conflict — and had a chance to do something to improve their lot. And the last decade has been doing that in a rather different way still, from my desk in the University.
Photos taken by Maurice Herson of refugees during the Rwandan Genocide:
The latest issue of the Forced Migration Review ‘Shelter in displacement’ is available, free, here: www.fmreview.org/resettlement
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