A Glimpse Inside a Refugee’s WorldTuesday, June 20, 2017
The sun was setting over a stretch of dry desert outside of Amman, Jordan as I sat with several Syrian refugee families who had pitched tents in this vast, empty wasteland. Unable to afford to live in an urban setting, they were surviving – barely.
These families fled Syria with only their clothing and most basic supplies after bombs destroyed their home village. In spite of their numbers – including dozens of children as well as men and women – they had only two small cups. That night we shared these two cups in a simple way. Thick, black coffee was poured into them, and each person sitting in the circle took a sip. Then the cups were refilled, and each person took another sip. The hospitality of these Syrian families was overwhelming.
“How long will it take for you to regain the lifestyle you lost in Syria?” one of my colleagues asked of one of the men, a father to several children who played in front of the family’s tent. The interpretation took a moment, but the answer was simple: “We will never recover,” he said. “Everything that took generations to accumulate is gone.”
The children darted around the tents that evening, laughing. The sun set. I felt the desert air, once warm and dry, cooling until I shivered. The flimsy tents blew in the cold wind, as vulnerable as the families they sheltered.
“I have shelter. I have some food. Now please just give me back my dignity.”
Every minute of every day – every 60 seconds – 24 people flee their home to escape persecution or conflict, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
World Refugee Day, recognized each year on June 20, is a day to recognize the world’s refugees. But it’s also an opportunity to get a glimpse into the world of a refugee – refugees like this Syrian family I met in Jordan.
Being a refugee often means the loss of a variety things that for many of us are easy to take for granted. Home, community, employment, clothing, food and education are all frequent losses when one is forced to flee their home as a result of conflict or persecution.
But for many refugees, the external losses are nothing compared to the internal losses – among them, a sense of dignity.
Christina, a displaced Iraqi Christian who had to flee the Nineveh Plain with her family when the Islamic State invaded their hometown, told me, “I have shelter. I have some food. Now please just give me back my dignity.”
Organizations like Open Doors, serving Christians like Christina and thousands of others who have been displaced because of their faith, are operating with a focus on restoring dignity. At Al-Hadaf, a shelter for Christian Iraqi refugees sponsored by Open Doors in Amman, the staff wraps food parcels in brightly colored ribbons and allows women to shop in a free clothing boutique. Their efforts are designed to help create a sense of restored dignity for refugees living in extreme poverty.
Trauma counseling is another aspect of work with refugees that is becoming increasingly important. Since displacement can have such a profoundly negative impact on children, many organizations sponsor “child-friendly spaces” in which children can reclaim parts of their childhood destroyed by war, hunger or persecution. Organizations like Save the Children and Open Doors provide activities and playgrounds in refugee camps around the world to help facilitate this return to childhood for refugee children.
More than 65 million people around the world have had to flee their homes due to war or persecution, according to the UNHCR. This unprecedented number means that we are looking at the largest displacement in recorded history.
But along with this mass displacement come more opportunities than ever before to help refugees around the world. Doctors Without Borders, a nonprofit organization with a medical focus, is organizing lifesaving missions to help rescue refugees making the dangerous boat ride to Greece. Thousands of refugees have lost their lives in this journey, and this organization and others are working to lessen the number of lives lost along the way.
Open Doors, among other organizations, is working to help displaced Christians throughout the Middle East to stay in their homeland, providing opportunities for employment, education and trauma counseling, as well as food distribution. World Relief and Church World Service are organizations that help aid and assist refugees around the world – as well as right here in the United States. They have great hands-on volunteer opportunities.
Although the growing numbers of refugees around the world can seem daunting, and making a difference seems impossible, refugees in countries around the world have reminded me that prayer and actions really do make a positive impact.
“We can feel the prayers of Christians around the world,” one displaced priest told me as we walked through a camp for displaced people in Erbil, Iraq.
This year, let’s remind refugees around the world that they are not forgotten.