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World Refugee Day: Remembering Who the Numbers Represent

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World Refugee Day: Remembering Who the Numbers Represent

Posted by Laura Heaton on June 19, 2009

The latest figures on the world’s displaced populations, released this week by the U.N. refugee agency, are difficult to grapple with: 42 million people forcibly uprooted from their homes.

The theme of this year’s World Refugee Day – “Real People, Real Needs” – emphasizes the human element that we might otherwise overlook as we think about displacement trends and find ourselves comparing the severity of one humanitarian crisis to another. Angelina Jolie, award-winning actress and prominent activist, astutely directed attention to the families and individuals grouped together under the unenviable classification ‘refugee.’

Numbers can illuminate, but they can also obscure. So I’m here today to say that refugees are not numbers. They’re not even just refugees; they are mothers and daughters, and fathers and sons. They are farmers, teachers, doctors, engineers. They are individuals, all. But most of all they are survivors, each one with a remarkable story that tells of resilience in the face of great loss.

Jolie was one of several high-profile advocates and officials who took part in UNHCR’s annual World Refugee Day event in Washington yesterday. (To hear Jolie’s reflections on the remarkable people she has met through her work with UNHCR, click here.) She took the stage with U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, Sam Witten, the top U.S. State Department official on refugees and migration, and Khagendra and Ganga Baral, former refugees from Bhutan. NBC news anchor Ann Curry moderated the program.

Individual stories of survival featured prominently throughout the event, with a particular emphasis on redefining the way the world thinks about refugees. As countries around the world confront new concerns about national security, humanitarian space for the most vulnerable populations is disappearing, U.N. High Commissioner Guterres explained. Therefore, a conscious effort must be made to counter the impression that refugees and displaced people are a threat or a burden. People who are forced to flee their homes in order to survive become the most vulnerable people in the world and are therefore most deserving of attention and support. Jolie put this need for a shift in context:

As an American, I know the strength that diversity has given my country, a country built by what now some would dismiss as asylum seekers or economic migrants. And I believe that we must persuade the world that refugees must not be simply viewed as a burden; they are survivors, and they can bring those qualities to the service of their communities and the countries that shelter them.

This reality becomes evident as one hears directly from individuals about their plight. Via a live feed from the Djabal refugee camp in eastern Chad, a student from the Obama primary school had this to say to the audience gathered at the Washington commemoration: 





Rose Mapendo, the recipient of the Humanitarian of the Year award, which was presented at the event, offered a final emotional narrative of the hardships faced by refugees. In what began as a round of thanks to all those who helped her reach safety in the United States, Mapendo shared her harrowing story of spending 16 months in a Congolese death camp, where she saw her husband executed, and the long journey to the United States with her nine children. Mapendo is now the spokesperson for Mapendo International, which was founded in her honor to provide assistance to refugees who are in particularly vulnerable situations and have been overlooked by traditional refugee support programs.

Personalized accounts and stories of survival will feature prominently tomorrow, June 20 – World Refugee Day – at UNHCR’s culminating event that will be broadcast around the world in real-time.

Enough’s own Darfur Dream Team Sister Schools program will be highlighted in throughout the day, so keep an eye out for Sister Schools coordinator Stella Kenyi and Enough senior advisor Omer Ismail, who will be live from Djabal refugee camp in eastern Chad. Enough Co-founder John Prendergast, who just wrapped up a trip to Congo, will also patch into the conversation via a live video feed.

Enough has special coverage of the event and all of the World Refugee Day activities at Darfur Dream Team. Tune in tomorrow from 9a.m. to 9p.m. EST to watch and participate in live video conferences with people living in UNHCR camps from Chad, Kenya and Pakistan. You can join the conversation in the live chat room or by sending in video clips, text messages or Tweets. It is going to be a remarkable day of interaction across borders, languages, and cultures. Tune in and be part of the global show of support for the plight of refugees worldwide.