First, the numbers:
There are 71 million refugees in the world right now. Per a recent United Nations report, that means there are more people displaced from their homes by war and persecution than at any other time in human history. Or, to look at it another way: 1 in every 108 people on the planet has been displaced.
You can try, but there is no making that math work. It is tragic, heartbreaking, impossible. But it is true.
In the year 2000, the United Nations declared June 20 to be World Refugee Day, and the global community has observed that date ever since. That first celebration fell nearly 50 years after the first Convention on the Status of Refugees, and now, nearly 20 years after that, we still recognize the day as a moment to lift up the strength, perseverance and dignity of displaced people all over the world.
The word “celebration” might feel counterintuitive here, given the horrific global conditions that create a refugee crisis to begin with. But that’s just what this day is meant to be: a celebration of the human capacity to overcome those circumstances and rebuild a new life. It is also a tribute to the many ways in which resettled refugees contribute to the fullness of life in their new communities around the world.
While the United States still accepts more applications from asylum seekers than many other countries, recent legislation has done a great deal of harm in limiting entry and promoting anti-immigrant rhetoric. With that in mind, today is also an opportunity for communities in general–and the faith community in particular– to affirm and advocate for the interests of those seeking asylum, and those who have planted new roots in our own neighborhoods. It’s a good day to talk about building bridges instead of walls; and making more room at the table instead of fearfully blocking all whom we might deem ‘other.’
In that spirit, here are few ways to “celebrate” today. And make the world safer, kinder and more just while you’re at it.
- Do the math. If you are reading this post, you’ve already done thing one: educate yourself about the true scope of this issue. For more statistics, and some powerful infographics, see the UNHCR report ‘at a glance;’ or read the full report. Even if stats aren’t your thing, these numbers are critical for understanding the larger story of this human rights crisis. And speaking of stories,
- Listen to stories. A local radio station in Louisville has planned a whole day of programming around World Refugee Day. They’ll feature local leaders involved in refugee and immigration services, hear stories from resettled families, and feature music highlighting the culture that refugees have brought to our area. The special is a group effort on the part of the Red Cross, Catholic Charities, and Kentucky Refugee Ministries–a truly outstanding organization unique to Kentucky. Which is to say, your radio station will probably not have this particular kind of all-day observance, but you should still check your local media outlets to see what is happening in your community today. (Or you can listen to ours online!) You can also check out this selection of documentaries that share powerful stories of displaced people. The important thing is to sit with the reality, and put a human face on this crisis today. In some places, there might even be a local celebration you can attend.
- Advocate. It’s a lot simpler than you think. Write to your Representative and tell them that you would like to see the U.S. be more welcoming to those seeking asylum. Disciples Refugee and Immigration Ministries have this wonderful template you can use. Feel free to make changes to suit your own context, but it is a great starting point.
- Eat out. Yes, I’m telling you to go out for lunch. Or dinner. Enjoy some wonderful ethnic cuisine, and try to support a local business run by a resettled family (like Sone Ze Ya in Kansas City!) In many communities, those who came to the area as refugees have brought the cuisine of their country and added it to the culinary landscape of their new home. Even if you can’t find a restaurant owned by resettled folks, know that any time you support a business owned and operated by immigrants, you are helping to make your community a more welcoming place. And that is truly the spirit of this day.
- Give. There are many organizations that support refugee resettlement; and/or, work to meet the needs of displaced people living in camps in an effort to make transient life more livable. I’m partial to Week of Compassion myself. Or, find one that aligns with your local community or faith family.
- Volunteer. Not every city/state has an operation on the level of Kentucky Refugee Ministries. If you are lucky enough to be in proximity of such a wonderful resource, by all means, start there. Otherwise, your local offices of Catholic Charities, Jewish Vocational Services, or any interfaith networks are always a great first point of contact.
- Tell a friend. Share one or more of these resources on your own social media platforms; share with your church family; or just tell someone you see today why this day is a thing. When our lives are safe and comfortable, it is easy to take safety and comfort for granted and forget that for many–in fact, for nearly 71 million people worldwide– the simple welcome of home is a distant dream.
A distant dream. But not an impossible one. We can make the table bigger, today and every day. In big ways and small, we can help someone find home.