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A Refugee's Story

A refugee’s journey is long, confusing, lonely and often life-threatening. After being forced to leave their homes, they often find themselves with hundreds of thousands of other refugees in crowded and chaotic camps. Refugee camps provide little to no opportunity to work, and a scarcity of clean water and medical care are an ever-present reality. After requesting asylum some refugees wait for decades until their name is finally called.

This is their story unfolded…

WHAT IS A REFUGEE?

A refugee is someone who has fled from his or her home country and cannot return because he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. The first step for most refugees is to register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the country to which s/he has fled. UNHCR has the mandate to provide international protection to refugees. UNHCR determines if an individual qualifies as a refugee and, if so, works toward the best possible durable solution for each refugee: safe return to the home country, local integration, or third-country resettlement.

REFUGEES AROUND THE WORLD:

According to UNHCR’s latest statistics, there are approximately 15.4 million refugees in the world. The vast majority of these refugees will receive support in the country to which they fled until they can voluntarily and safely return to their home country. A small number of refugees will be allowed to become citizens in the country to which they fled, and an even smaller number — primarily those who are at the highest risk — will be resettled in a third country. While UNHCR reports that less than 1 percent of all refugees are eventually resettled in third countries, the United States welcomes over half of these refugees, more than all other resettlement countries combined.

More than half of the refugee population is in Asia and some 20 percent in Africa. They live in widely varying conditions, from well-established camps and collective centers to makeshift shelters or living in the open. Over half of all refugees live in urban areas. They all face three possible solutions: repatriation; local integration or resettlement.

When people flee their homesteads, they leave behind most of their belongings. Sometimes they manage to grab a few basics, but most of the time they are just happy to escape with their lives intact. They usually end up with thousands of others in a settlement that can stretch for miles. This is a refugee camp, a place that not one of us would willingly choose to inhabit. But the refugees have no choice. Having fled conflicts of unimaginable proportions – massacre, genocide, and other atrocities - they are relieved to have found a safe place. So they construct tents and other makeshift shelters from whatever materials happen to be available -- sticks, plastic sheeting, mud and stones. In the best of cases, humanitarian aid agencies, as those mentioned above, will provide the basics: food, clean drinking water, and rudimentary health care. But sometimes, depending on the local political climate and the accessibility to the camp, weeks could go by before help arrives. That is more than enough time for water-borne diseases such as cholera and dysentery to take hold and spread quickly among thousands of people gathered in these makeshift settlements.

The hope among the refugees is that they will be resettled quickly to a safe place, or, even better, return to the homes they had left behind. After all, a refugee camp is intended as a temporary solution, not a permanent residence. Unfortunately, for many millions of people that is not the case.

Imagine that your life, as you know it, disappears in the blink of an eye. War, violence or fear for your family’s safety force you to flee your home. After hours or even days of a torturous journey, you find shelter far away, in a squalid tent. You are dependent on handouts of food; possibly have no clean drinking water or access to health care that prevents outbreaks of cholera, dysentery, hepatitis, malaria, and other diseases. But the fact is that millions of people around the world, in countries big and small, people of all ages and many nationalities, have been living in such desolate and precarious conditions for years.

ONCE THEY ARRIVE IN THE STATES…

The Department of State has cooperative agreements with nine domestic resettlement agencies to resettle refugees. While some of the agencies have religious affiliations, they are not allowed to proselytize. The standard cooperative agreement between the Department of State and each of the domestic resettlement agencies specifies the goods and services that the agency must provide to each refugee. All together, the nine domestic resettlement agencies have about 350 affiliates throughout the United States. Each agency headquarters stays in touch with the affiliates to monitor the resources (e.g., interpreters who speak various languages, the size and special features of available housing, the availability of schools with special services, medical care, English classes, counseling, etc.) that each affiliate’s community can offer.

As the cooperative agreement requires, all refugees are met at the airport upon arrival in the United States by someone from the sponsoring resettlement affiliate and/or a family member or friend. They are taken to their apartment, which has furnishings, appliances, climate-appropriate clothing and some of the food typical of the refugee’s culture. Shortly after arrival, refugees are helped to start their lives in the United States. This includes applying for a Social Security card, registering children in school, learning how to reach and use shopping facilities, arranging medical appointments and connecting with needed social or language services.

The Department of State’s Reception and Placement program provides assistance for refugees to settle in the United States. It supplies resettlement agencies a one-time sum of $1,875 per refugee to defray a refugee’s costs during the first few months. Most of these funds go toward the refugees’ rent, furniture, food, and clothing, as well as to pay the costs of agency staff salaries, office space and other resettlement-related expenses that are not donated or provided by volunteers.

Edwin Silverman, chief of the Illinois Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Services, said approximately 136,000 refugees live in Illinois. Up until five years ago, 85 percent of refugees lived in Chicago. But that has decreased to about 60 percent. Refugees are moving out of the cities to the suburbs to find work. In Illinois, there are 54,000 refugees living in the suburbs.

Information in the above was retrieved from the following websites: UNHCR, millionsoulsaware, World Relief, GCIR and State.gov