Happy World Refugee Day!

Some of you know that we volunteer with Isak, a refugee from Ethiopia/Eritrea.  We spend a few hours a week with him, sometimes just hanging out and sometimes helping him with things like figuring out bills, introducing American culture, or learning about his culture.  It is awesome and one of the most rewarding things we have ever done.  Today we celebrated World Refugee Day!

I wanted to take some time to tell you about refugees.  In the past year, refugees from these countries have arrived in Kansas City:  Somali, Iraq, Cuba, Burma/Myanmar, Burundi (Africa), Ethiopia, Afghanastan, Eritrea, Sudan, Maurita (Africa), Central African Republic, Bhutan (Africa), and Liberia.  At World Refugee Day today we got to meet people from all over the world and even played soccer with a few of them:

They were a lot better than us!  I think they had a good time laughing at our lack of skills.

The agency that processes refugees in Kansas City, Jewish Vocational Services, is a great non-profit that can use support.  Unlike sick children or cute puppies, refugees don’t capture a lot of peoples’ hearts.  There are a lot of misconceptions about refugees, so I want to take a moment to share something from the Office of Refugee Resettlement:

“A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence.  A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.  Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so.  War and ethnic, tribal, and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.

Migrants choose to move in order to improve the future prospects of themselves and their families.  Refugees have to move if they are to save their lives or preserve their freedom.  They have no protection from their own state- indeed it is often their own government that is threatening to persecute them.  If other countries do not let them in, and do not help them once they are in, then they may be condemning them to death- or to an intolerable life without sustenance and without rights.

It is the historic policy of the United States to admit to this country refugees of special humanitarian concern, reflecting our core values and our tradition of being a safe haven to the oppressed.

Following the admission of over 250,000 displaced Europeans, the first refugee legislation was enacted by the U.S. Congress- the Displaced Persons Act of 1948.  Later laws provided for admission of persons fleeing Communist regimes, largely from Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, Korea, and China, and in the 1960s Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro arrived en masse.  Most of these waves of refugees were assisted by private ethnic and religious organizations.

With the fall of Vietnam in April 1975, the U.S. faced the challenge of resettling hundreds of thousands of Indochinese.  Congress realized it needed to create procedures to deal with the ongoing resettlement of refugees.  Consequently, Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980, which standardized the resettlement services for all refugees admitted to the U.S. 

Since 1975, the U.S. has resettled approximately 2.6 million refugees, with nearly 77% being either IndoChinese or citizens of the former Soviet Union.  Since the Refugee Act of 1980, annual admissions figures have ranged from a high of 207,116 in 1980 to a low of 27,100 in 2002.”

Refugees are here legally, and their challenges can seem never ending.  They must learn English, find a job, pay their bills, and most of them send money back to their home country.  The ones that get resettled to a third country are the lucky ones- only about 1% of refugees worldwide get that opportunity.  Isak calls America “Opportunity Land”.  They are happy to be here and happy to work.  Life handed refugees moldy decaying lemons and they are making watery lemonade, with the hope that their children and their children’s children can one day enjoy real lemonade.  Donate your furniture and clothes to a refugee agency.  Offer them a decent job.  Spend a few hours a week helping them learn how to get around in this great country.  This is not the same as a few hours volunteering at the animal shelter or at a fundraising event.  I cannot think of anything I’ve ever done that has made more of a direct impact in someone’s life in so little amount of time.  It was a little scary at first because neither one of us had a ton of experience with other cultures-we felt totally overwhelmed and unqualified.  But we stuck with it and we’ve learned as much from Isak as he has from us.

Here are more pictures from today:

If you have a couple hours a week, think hard about volunteering with a refugee.  It is so worth it.


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Filed under Charity, Isak, Refugees

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