The global displacement crisis that we are witnessing today is often, and by necessity, described with numbers, statistics, percentages, estimations. And yet, at least for me, what sometimes lingers, what haunts, what becomes the leaky faucet at the back of the mind, is not the numbers, impressive as they are, but a single image, a word or two spoken casually overheard, a brief encounter I may have had.
For instance, two little sisters I met in 2010, Saliha and Reyhan, aged 5 and 3, both breathtakingly beautiful, with big, luminous blue eyes and striking blond hair. In another world they might have been child models. But through the arbitrary genetic lottery that is life, they were born Afghan. And they were part of a family of returning refugees, living in a mud shelter, entirely alone except for one other family, in a remote corner of the wind-blown, dusty Shomali plains, a few miles from the Bagram Air Base. It’s hard to imagine a more desolate place, barren, hot, windy, everything the color of dust, nothing for miles but sky and sand and more sand. They had little potable water, no nearby school, no nearby clinic, and nothing to play with but a rope that their father had hung from a dead tree and fashioned into a swing. That -and this is the tiny indelible detail for me- a little plastic Winnie the Pooh, that squeaked when you squeezed it. I will always remember how their faces lit up when, as we were leaving, I gave them an apple each. In my mind, those little sisters have become the face of the Afghan returnees.
WRD is, of course, about raising awareness of the massive scale of the global displacement crisis. The numbers are impressive and worrisome.
At total of 42.5 million displaced people. 15.4 million refugees. 26.4 million IDP’s (Internally Displaced People). 4.3 million newly displaced people just in 2011. Average length of stay in a refugee camp of 17 years. Millions and millions in a state of protracted exile. These numbers are important because people need to understand the enormity of the crisis.
But for me, WRD is also about bridging the gap between the numbers and human faces behind the numbers. WRD is about turning statistics into something personal, into a sense of shared humanity, as we saw so vividly and movingly tonight with Kim Schultz’ play No Place Called Home. I am proud to be a spokesperson for an organization that never loses sight of this vital connection. In the sixty years since its inception, UNHCR has helped more than 50 million refugees fleeing persecution, violence and war. It has relentlessly worked to protect refugees, provide them with humanitarian assistance, and to find long-term solutions by helping refugees repatriate if conditions warrant, by helping them to integrate in host countries, or to resettle in third countries. But at every UNHCR field office I have visited, be it in Africa or Afghanistan, I have found that its workers know that they don’t serve numbers, but human beings. Their work is about this woman with five kids whose husband was shot by the Janjaweed. It’s about this one-legged Soviet war veteran who has seven kids and can’t get a job.
For me personally, Thanksgiving Day truly arrives not on the third Thursday of November, but on June 20th. It’s on World Refugee Day that I take stock of my remarkable fortune, and give thanks for the miraculous act of generosity on the part of the U.S. to grant me and my family asylum. Each year on WRD, I think of what my life might have entailed had the U.S. not allowed my family to resettle here. Returned to Afghanistan, my options would have been few and dire. Perhaps I would have been drafted and sent to fight. I might been injured, ended up paralyzed, or I might have died. My family may have fled to Pakistan. They may have had to live in a refugee camp. Our prospects for leaving the camp and having a home of our own again might have been dim. Some of the people I love might have died there long before we could have resettled.
But I also think about the millions who have not been as fortunate as I, who are in desperate need of the world’s attention and of its generosity, the sort I have benefited from. For them we need to do more. We need to recognize that the fortress mentality will not work, that global displacement and statelessness is an inherently international problem and not the sole responsibility of a few developing countries. I hope WRD serves as a reminder that refugees and asylum seekers bring expertise, talent and passion to the countries that welcome them. That they contribute to their new communities and to the local culture and the local economy. They become productive members of their new society as entrepreneurs, engineers, lawyers, doctors, perhaps artists. Statelessness is an anachronism in the 21st century. It can and should be resolved. In that spirit, I hope communities in this great country and others continue to welcome the enrichment, potential, and enthusiasm that refugees and asylum seekers bring to their new neighborhoods.
1 – UNHCR site