Sunday 20th June marks the 20th World Refugee Day. A day to stand in solidarity with the millions that have been displaced from their homes, facing conflict and a constant threat of persecution, we explore contributions made by those who know life as a refugee.
“We Cannot Walk Alone”: in a world embroiled in crises, we’ve come to realise the validity of this phrase. Within the past year, unity has shown its power, whether through protests to bring justice to the family of George Floyd, to speak up for the rights of the thousands of deceased and displaced Palestinians or Tigrayans, or efforts to protect people from the coronavirus. These four words, taken from Martin Luther King Jr’s historic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, communicate what we’ve been taught by the events of the past year. It’s unsurprising, then, that this phrase marks the theme of this year’s World Refugee Day.
World Refugee Day is an international event to raise awareness and instigate collective efforts for the millions of refugees displaced and settled across the world. It was formerly known as Africa Refugee Day, as decided by the United Nations, to mark fifty years since the signature of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Since then, people from the world over observe the day by participating in various activities with the single aim of educating people on the daily realities faced by refugees. These activities may take the form of insightful talks by former or current refugees, relating their experiences fleeing war and persecution and struggles in adjusting to new places. Additionally, they may be screenings or book clubs, bringing home the futility of war and conflict. They may even be cook-a-thons to indulge in the fascinations of cultures that generations of conflicts have ironically united.
Whatever the activities taking place on this Day, there is a shared intention of understanding the plight of the over 65 million people around the world that have lived or are living the challenges of being a refugee. The universality of World Refugee Day is a recognition that we are all implicated by this and have a role to play in incentivising better laws that protect the rights of refugees. In 2019, the UN launched a petition known as #WithRefugees, encouraging people to ask their governments to support refugees. Usually, mainstream media represents refugees as victims. Rarely are refugees celebrated for the contributions they make to better society, so below, we’ve collated some examples of refugees, past and present, who continue to enrich our lives.
The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist. Born in Freiber, Moravia, modern-day Pibor in the Czech Republic in 1856 to a Jewish family, he moved to Leipzig before settling in Vienna. It was here that he spent most of his life. He studied Medicine at the University of Vienna, later working at the Vienna General Hospital. In 1886, Freud set up a private practice where he specialised in nervous and brain disorders. After World War One, Freud began applying his ideas of psychoanalysis to history, art, literature and anthropology. Freud published many well-known texts in his lifetime, including The Interpretation of Dreams, Studies in Hysteria, which he co-authored with Josef Breuer, and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, amongst others. After Austria’s annexation in 1938, and five years after the Nazis publicly set his books on fire, he fled to Hampstead, North London, with his wife, Martha Bernays, and daughter Anna. He lived there until his death in September 1939.
The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso
The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, resides in Dharamsala, North India, but he was born in Takster, Amdo, in northeastern Tibet to a farming family in 1935. At the age of 23, the Dalai Lama passed his final exams in Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple and was awarded the Geshe Lharampa degree, the equivalent of the highest doctorate in Buddhist Philosophy. But when China invaded Tibet in 1950, he assumed complete political power, travelling to Beijing in 1954 for talks with Mao Zedong and other Chinese leaders. When the state of Tibet worsened with the suppression of the Tibetan national uprising by Chinese troops, His Holiness went into exile in 1959. Living in India since, the Dalai Lama has been working to liberate Tibet to which end he has instigated a number of constitutional reforms, such as ‘The Charter of Tibetans in Exile.’ He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his pacifist struggles to liberate the country to which he one day hopes to return.
Loung Ung is a Cambodian American human rights activist, author and lecturer. She was born in 1970 to a middle-class family of nine in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Pheng. When the Khmer Rouge assumed control of the country in 1975, her family, along with thousands of other Cambodians, fled to rural parts of Cambodia to seek relative safety. What followed was a four-year ordeal, led by Pol Pot, of systematic genocide of Khmer-Chinese under the guise of communism. Loung lost her father, mother, and two of her three sisters, and was separated from her other siblings when she accompanied her eldest brother and his wife to begin a better life in the US. She now campaigns on ending violence towards women and the use of child soldiers and eradicating landmines all over the world. She is also the national spokesperson for the Campaign for a Landmine-Free World. In the early 2000s, Loung Ung penned her memories of growing up in Cambodia, the trauma of Khmer Rouge violence, and her escape and new life in the US. The first of the series, First They Killed My Father (a book review of which you can read here) was adapted into a film of the same name in 2017, directed by Angelina Jolie.
Born to Syrian parents in Kuwait in 1980, Diala Brisly grew up in Damascus in Syria but fled the country in 2013 at the outbreak of the Syrian war. Her journey parallels those similarly displaced by conflict and the threat of persecution: along with her family, she first fled to Beirut, and then Turkey, finally seeking refuge in France. She began her artistic career in her early 20s, working for Spacetoon in Syria. Since then, she’s collaborated on at least twelve films and six TV programmes for the BBC and Al Jazeera Kids. Diala is a self-taught artist, animator and computer-aided designer, who channels her grief and trauma as a displaced refugee into her creativity: “It is a way to breathe”, she explains. Her artwork tells stories, expressing what cannot be told with words. Diala’s artwork focuses on the effects of war on women and children, through which she hopes to autonomise them.
Few may have heard of Hangama Amiri, an Afghan-Canadian refugee, but many will be familiar with the World Refugee Day 2021 Twitter emoji that she designed. Commissioned by UNHCR and Twitter Inc., Hangama is the first refugee to do this, and she uses the opportunity to send a message of protection and solidarity to the many who, like her, know pain, fear and the constant alienation that comes from the perpetual search for safety. The UN 1951 Convention defines the term ‘refugee’ as anyone outside of their country and unable to return home due to “well-founded fears of being persecuted.” But for Hangama, life began as a refugee and she hasn’t any memory of the country that is legally is her home; she was born in a refugee camp in Pakistan to Afghan parents fleeing conflicts in their native country. After spending years in multiple countries, the family were resettled in Nova Scotia, Canada. Through her artwork, Hangama found success; she completed her graduate degree from the Ivy-League Yale School of Art. Much like Diala, Hangama uses art to protect her and explain truths that are difficult to speak in words. Her artwork is her power; through it, she explores matters concerning feminism, geo-politics and memory, and her audience is far-reaching, crossing people in the entire Western part of the globe.
Refugees are like any one of us and they deserve to be treated as such. Unfortunately, however, complicated legal matters conceal their humanity and class them as less. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organisation surveyed more than 30, 000 refugees and migrants in 170 countries, many of whom reported dire conditions exacerbated by closed borders, suspension of resettlement travel and deportations with limited time for preparation. As a result, many have found themselves living in cramped conditions with little to no access to healthcare, even when suffering from COVID-19. Despite fewer routes of escape, the previous year saw a four per cent increase in the number of refugees compared to 2019 which means that 1 in 95 people is currently a refugee.
This year, the World Refugee Day campaign asks you to reach out your hand to a stranger who has lived through something you have not and help support the cause they are fighting for.