On June 20 we celebrate World Refugee Day across the globe. This year’s theme is “Standing With Refugees.” People living as refugees are like any of us, and could, but for the grace of God, be any one of us.
There are more than 65 million displaced people across the globe. They have left their home countries because of war, persecution, famine and many other reasons that make their country unlivable for them. Among those, more than 21 million are officially recognized as refugees. According to the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is someone who fled his or her home and country owing to “a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
Many refugees are in exile to escape the effects of natural or human-made disasters. This is a crisis like the world has not seen before — people are experiencing homelessness around the world. Most often they move, or are moved, to a country surrounding their country of origin, often in poor conditions in a marginal area set aside for refugees. However, only two percent are actually resettled to another country, and a very small percentage of those are resettled to the United States.
Catholic Social Services is the only resettlement agency for Alaska and we resettle a small number of people every year. This year we expect that number to be about 90 people. These are most often people being reunited with family members already in Alaska. They come from all over the world — Europe, Asia, South America and Africa. Through our services, we answer the call of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to “welcome the newcomers in their neighborhoods and schools, in their places of work and worship, with heartfelt hospitality, openness and eagerness both to help and to learn from our brothers and sisters of whatever religion, ethnicity, or background.”
Many who resettle through Catholic Social Services are children. These children attend school and are welcomed with open arms and open hearts by the amazing teachers in the Anchorage and Mat-Su School Districts. Recently, Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services (RAIS) at Catholic Social Services had a talent show featuring the youth in our program. It was the most wonderful display of musical performances, dances, sporting demos and a series of skits. I brought my children — my 7-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. They were excited as we sat in the theater and the stage darkened, ready for the show to begin.
It’s such a great experience to go to a real theater, especially when you’re a child. The youth performers were all different ages and from countries across the globe. Some performed traditional dance or music, others sang pop songs or simply showed their skills. One skit in particular had six young girls, all under age eight, pretending they were on the airplane taking them to Alaska for the first time from their home countries. They laughed and giggled intermittently, as any child would in a performance, but the words and feelings came through powerfully. They expressed fear and excitement, but mostly hope. My daughter laughed with them, and compared herself to them by telling me how she had also gone on an airplane. She told me how she wished she could visit the other girls’ countries. I hope someday she can. We all have something to learn from one another.
The Anchorage World Refugee Day celebration is happening this month on Saturday, June 10, from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. We invite all of you to attend. It will be a celebration in partnership with the Mountain View Street Fair and takes place in the parking lot of Clark Middle School. The event will include performances, food and the opportunity to celebrate refugees in our community and around the world. We need to think about this issue and address it. The quickest way to start is by getting to know the people in our community.