On June 20th, LSSND joins the world in observing and celebrating World Refugee Day — a day to honor and reflect on the courage, strength and determination of those forced to flee their homeland under threat of persecution, conflict, violence or death.
As we all navigate life during a pandemic, we must not forget the compounded effects of COVID-19 on refugee communities living in North Dakota and waiting overseas in refugee camps.
For some refugees, the effects of the pandemic could mean that they will never get the chance to leave camps and rebuild their lives. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that there was an unprecedented 79.5 million displaced people in the world at the end of 2019. They account for one percent of the total global population, and 40 percent of those individuals – nearly half - are children.
The thought of even more time spent hoping and waiting for a sense of permanency is heartbreaking.
Due to the pandemic, efforts to resettle refugees across the globe are at a standstill. Travel arrangements originally scheduled to take place over the past for months have been canceled, creating rippling outcomes that could result in months or even years of delay.
“When travel is booked, this means the clients have medical clearance,” Yasmeen Frost, the team lead for refugee resettlement at LSSND, explains. “The medical clearance is only valid for up to six months, so some of the cases who were ready to get on a plane — their clearance could already have expired. Then, they have to redo that whole process. That can take months, even years. There is no guarantee. The expiration of medical is a big, big setback.”
Despite the countless obstacles, refugees are resilient people. Even though all new arrivals to the United States have been paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic, one family arrived in North Dakota just one week before the world began to lockdown.
In the first week of March, a mother and her seven children landed at Hector International Airport after a very long day of traveling. After five years apart, she and her children were finally reunited with their husband and father who had been living in the United States since 2015.
“It was especially heart-touching when the father saw his youngest son at the airport,” says Massi Faizee, the family’s caseworker. “The son was probably one or two years old when his father moved to the United States, and now he is a tall guy. It was a heartwarming moment to see all the hugs the airport.”
Just as the family was adjusting to their new life in North Dakota, lockdowns began to take effect. The kids had been in their new schools for less than a week before the transition to distance learning, but Faizee says the kids loved their new teachers and are currently taking summer school courses.
“All of the kids are very intelligent, and they all speak English,” said Faizee. “They all have long-term goals and career visions. They told me they wanted to be engineers or doctors.”
Faizee, who immigrated to the United States himself in 2014, said that the easiest way to welcome refugees into the community is just to be kind.
“A simple thing to do is just to give them a smile,” he says. “I want community members just to smile and talk with refugees. I want them to hear their stories, not just think they are strangers.”
Some messages never change. In May of 1975, a former European WWII refugee wrote similar statements in an edition of LSSND’s publication, The Messenger. In an essay titled “I Was a Stranger and you Welcomed Me,” Reverend Kramins wrote:
[Refugees] are different — not in the basic human needs for understanding, acceptance, friendship and love, but different in their cultural background — their tastes, interests, customs — their lifestyle. If we want to help, we have to accept them for what they are today. The greatest mistake would be to expect the “strangers” to accept our “way of life” — our thinking, our feelings, our acting, and for us to become disenchanted if they do not learn overnight to love apple pie and enjoy baseball.
Tastes do differ but given time they may change — I shall never forget my first encounter with lutefisk. My friendly Norwegian host urged, “Try it, you will like it.” Well, I did, and I thought I would die. But believe it or not, now I like it very much.
On this World Refugee Day and every day, may we all make conscious efforts to reach out and love our neighbors, hold in our hearts those refugees who are in danger and give thanks for the new Americans who’ve made it here to become valued members of our communities.
The United Nations General Assembly named June 20th as World Refugee Day in December of 2000. While the 20th anniversary cannot be the celebration we had hoped for, we can still keep the intentions behind the celebration at the forefront of our minds:
To build empathy and raise awareness
To provide an incentive to creative a more peaceful world
To educate the public about who refugees are and why they flee their homeland
To help people understand the challenges faced by the refugees in different places
To celebrate the contribution refugees make in other countries
To focus on how the community can provide a safe and welcoming environment for refugees.
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service put together a great resource page to read refugee stories, learn about the world’s refugee crisis and advocate for your neighbors through compassionate policy.