June 20th is World Refugee Day, a day that was established in 2001 to raise awareness of the over 65 million people who have been forced to flee their homes because it is no longer safe to live there. But World Refugee Day isn’t just about raising awareness, it’s also about celebrating the strength and courage of refugees. On this World Refugee Day, we here at Xyza wanted to do a little bit of both.
We asked our friend Bill Frelick at Human Rights Watch, an organization that helps raise awareness of human rights issues, to answer some of our questions about the refugee crisis and how kids might be able to help. Take a look at what Mr. Frelick had to share with Xyza readers:
What is your job?
My job is to give a voice to the voiceless. Many refugees are in situations where it is difficult for them to speak out about their plight. This could be due to governments or other groups stopping them from speaking out, or their circumstances being so difficult they are unable to do so themselves. Human rights activists, like me, help to give them a voice. Human Rights Watch has the capacity to deliver their message to the entire world. We try to tell their story, to let people know that they need help, and to encourage the people of the United States and other countries to speak out and call for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers to be protected. We also urge governments and international organizations to take action to respect and protect the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers.
How do you help refugees?
A large part of helping refugees is hearing their stories and witnessing their circumstances first-hand. This year I have been to Lebanon to see and talk to Syrian refugees in that country, as well as visiting the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. I interview the refugees and investigate their conditions, both in their home country and in the country that they have fled to. I take what I have seen and been told, and advocate for the respect of the rights of refugees and asylum seekers through improved conditions and protections. This is usually done through publications and press releases we make, as well as direct discussions with government officials. These activities have led directly to governments changing their policies and improving the lives of refugees and asylum seekers.
What are your thoughts on the refugee crisis today? Has it changed from ten years ago?
I think the major change in the last ten years has been the war in Syria. This conflict has seen hundreds of thousands of people flee that country. At first these refugees left to neighboring countries, like Lebanon and Turkey. However, conditions and protections for refugees in those countries is not to the highest standard, so many risked their lives to get to Europe. Such a flow of refugees has not been seen since World War II. But there are other conflicts and human rights violations occurring throughout the world that are also causing people to flee.
I think another big change is how refugees are perceived. Some politicians have said that refugees are undeserving or are even dangerous. These statements could not be further from the truth. But, unfortunately, more and more people and politicians in Europe and North America are making these statements. But refugees deserve our help. Refugees are simply people who want the rights and freedoms that we in the United States take for granted.
What should kids know about the refugee crisis?
First, kids should know that there are refugee kids just like you. They didn’t ask to be refugees. They’d love to go to school and to play just like you. They were living a normal life and would like to live a normal life again, but they’ve been forced from their homes and have been put in this very tough situation. But kids should know that, although this crisis is big, they are able to help too. You can find out more about the crisis through the internet, newspapers and television. You can talk to your family and friends, your school or your place of worship and see if you can create some initiatives to help refugees both in America and overseas. Try to think how you would feel if you were a refugee, and what you would like other people to do to help. Once you’ve thought of a few ideas, try to put them into practice.
How can kids help?
There are many ways that kids can help. There may be students in your school who are refugees. They may be finding it hard to adjust to a new life in America. The best thing you can do is be their friend! Help them get to know your school, your community, your country. You can also let your friends know about the reasons people become refugees, and speak up to defend refugees if you hear other people saying bad things about them. Follow groups like Human Rights Watch on social media and share their posts on the issue too.
What can kids and families do to help new refugee families?
You can look into opportunities in your town to volunteer and help new refugee families in America. Many organizations are looking for volunteers to teach refugee families about life in America. These are things like where to go shopping, banking, catching public transport, all the things to help people become independent in a new country. Talk to your parents about whether your family can volunteer. You can also talk to your parents about whether you can donate money to organizations that are helping refugees.
Why is there a World Refugee Day?
World Refugee Day helps bring attention to the human rights issues refugees and asylum seekers face. There is so much news these days that sometimes the problems refugees and asylum seekers suffer from get lost. Having a day dedicated to refugees reminds us who refugees are, why they have become refugees, and how we might be able to help them. But it is not all about the problems. World Refugee Day is also a time to celebrate refugees and show how they are regular people like you or me and only want to be able to live a life free of fear and danger.
Bill Frelick, director, Refugee Rights Program, Human Rights Watch, June 14, 2018.