World Refugee Day

In 2001, the United Nations recognized the 50th anniversary of the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees by designating June 20 as World Refugee Day. Every year since, the day has been observed around the globe to draw attention to the plight of refugees and to mobilize political will and resources to help these people rebuild their lives.

Back in 1951 as the world emerged from the global violence of World War II, people were acutely aware of the many people who had been displaced by the war. Many agencies, including the government of the United States invested heavily in the rebuilding of Europe and Japan. People opened their hearts and donated to help strangers in different parts of the world. The crisis of refugees is even larger 70 years later. According to the UN, at the end of 2020, there were 82.4 million people who have been forcibly displaced by persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations. The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic meant that fewer refugees were able to be relocated to more permanent housing and in 2020 alone there were more than a million new claims from asylum seekers.

This year organizers at the United Nations are encouraging people to think not only in terms of the needs of refugees, but also to celebrate the strength and courage of people who have been forced to flee their homes and countries to escape conflict, hunger or persecution. People do not leave their homes and countries easily. They feel that they have no other choice, fearing persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

More than 6 million refugees live in camps worldwide. The camps are temporary facilities established to provide immediate shelter and protection, usually in response to war or other major disruptions. The camps strive to provide basic needs, such as food, water, and shelter. Some medical treatment and other basic services are also provided. Often the camps become crowded and basic hygiene is difficult to maintain without permanent water and sanitary sewer.

By country, Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees at at least 3.6 million persons. On our side of the world, Columbia is currently sheltering 1.8 million people in camps. The crisis in Central America has been exacerbated by people fleeing Venezuela during recent years and a slow down of processing of asylum claims at US border crossings.

Over two-thirds of refugees in the world come from just five countries: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar.

The bible is clear in its teaching about refugees: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21) “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

We are taught to treat others as we would like to be treated. And we are reminded that the story of our people is one of forced displacement. The Gospel of Matthew contains the story of Joseph and Mary and the infant Jesus fleeing to Egypt to escape the cruelties of Herod. The biblical story reminds us that we come from refugee stock and our story is one of displacement and fear. That story, however, is also one of courage, strength, and resilience.

There are no refugee camps near the places where we have lived. We watch from afar, seeing the images of the refugees of the world on our computer screen. The distance makes the people and their plight seem a bit unreal to us. However, our communities are not immune to people who have no shelter and lack the basic resources of life. As I learn my way around this place, in which we are newcomers, I see homeless people living on the streets. I’ve been here lone enough to recognize some individuals. I am learning some of the places where they go seeking help and the basics of survival. I know where there are tents set up for shelter and which corners are chosen by those who use discarded cardboard to make signs asking for help. These people may not be refugees in the sense of those displaced by war. Nonetheless many of them feel that they have been forced into their circumstances. Addiction and mental illness are just two reasons why people end up without homes and means of obtaining the most basic services of nutrition, health care, and shelter.

World Refugee Day is a day to raise the awareness of people like me. Those who are refugees don’t need a special day to recognize their status. Every day is refugee day for those who have no homes and few options about where to go. In the comfort of our homes, with regular meals assured, we who are privileged need a day to remind us of the needs of others. We need to be reminded of the teaching of our Bible and the call of our faith to reach out to those who are in need. World Refugee Day is for people like me.

It seems as there is always a crisis in the world. We hear over and over again about needs that are greater than our individual ability to respond. There are problems that are bigger than our capacity to solve. It is easy to feel insignificant and incapable of addressing the needs of the world. Jesus invites us to remember the small ways we are called to help. In both Mark and Mathew Jesus’ words are recorded that whoever gives a cup of water to drink belongs to Christ. We may not be able to solve all of the problems of the world, but we can offer a cup of water to drink.

May World Refugee Day be for us an opportunity to remember and serve those who are in need.

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