Khaled Hosseini, the Afghan-American author of The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, And The Mountains Echoed, is a fabulous story-teller. He knows the refugee experience intimately and calls it “The Most Urgent Story of Our Times.”
June 20th is World Refugee Day, the annual time for trying to tell and share that story, but unfortunately it is a story few people seem to hear, know, or understand. In the era of 100,000,000 million hits for popular videos, Hosseini’s 30 second story has reached 25,000. The UN High Commission for Refugees is trying to raise a very modest $50,000 by World Refugee Day as part of its efforts to keep over 40 million refugees safe this year. Please take the easy step and help with the video hit total; please consider donating to the cause if you are so moved.
Every year since 2008, I have tried to recruit others to help me put on World Refugee Day Celebrations, or if I am lucky, I get invited to the local commemoration put on by LSS New American Services. WRD is vitally important to me because I spend a lot of time with refugees (and former refugees) and hear their incredible stories, see their struggles in Fargo, and get to celebrate their successes. I’m a pretty private person, and want to respect others’ privacy, but these are stories other human beings need to hear in order to keep us humble, keep our lives in perspective, and to motivate us to act as global citizens. We might not be able to stop the conflicts or natural disasters that have forced people to flee their country of origin, but we can be welcoming hosts.
This year, I am working with LSS to host a commemoration on the day itself: June 20th, 10 am-noon (followed by international cuisine!). We will be gathering in the green space between the Civic Center, City Hall, and the Fargo Public Library; please bring your own chair or blanket. Come and go as you can; there will be music, skits, and speakers addressing the past, present, and future of refugees locally, nationally, and globally.
World Refugee Day is vitally important because over 40 million people world-wide are currently refugees or internally displaced, but they are virtually invisible. Syrians are in the spot light now, but the nine million or more refugees from that country are a surprisingly small fraction of the global challenge. Refugees during the cold war were seen, from the US perspective, as anti-communist freedom fighters, often well-educated; more often than not they were white. But that image has been replaced by a more complicated, non-white image. Aihwa Ong explains in Bhuddha is Hiding that after Vietnam, “the refugee acquired a more ambivalent image. Floods of refugees—both legal and illegal—escaping natural disasters, civil wars, ethnic wars, and adverse conditions in poor countries, flowed into the country. More and more, refugees came to be viewed as the byproduct of regional conflicts and underdeveloped economies that appeared to have little to do with American interests. Public sentiment gradually began to turn against the ‘boat peoples’ of the world arriving in a recession slowed United States. . . . They arrived just as American domestic policy, under Republican regimes, was shifting away from a welfare-state notion of custodial, collective support of the weak and poor towards emphasis on individuals’ civic duty to reduce their burden on the state” (82).
World Refugee is the best day each year to try to counter this post-Vietnam image. Refugees are everyone. They are middle class families from Syria, they are farmers from Sierra Leone; they are teachers from Somalia, Bhutan, and Burundi, but they sometimes end up as factory workers, janitors, or cashiers in America. One friend worked as a logistics officer in a refugee camp in his home country of Congo when he was twenty so he could pay for college, only to end up as a refugee in a Tanzanian camp at the age of 30, finally arriving in Fargo at 40. Refugees attend school when it is available, they join drama clubs and tell their own stories or Shakespeare’s stories to help make sense of their world, they get married and start families in camps, they start small businesses so they have more than just monthly rations to live off. They try to lead the lives most of us take for granted while living in a state of limbo, wondering when they can resume living the lives they once knew or dreamed of.
Find the World Refugee Day celebration in your city or state, hear multiple versions of the most urgent story of our times, and re-invigorate the American value of collectively supporting our neighbors and friends.