|1 April, 2009
Refugee. The word itself conjures up a variety of impressions and interpretations. The legal definition used by countries for over 50 years comes from the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees which states, “A refugee is a person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…”. 1 However, there are many unprotected people in our world today who do not exactly fit this legal definition yet have had to move from their homes in fear. To that end, related terms such as asylum-seekers, forced migrants, internally displaced and stateless people have arisen.
The largest city in North Africa with a population of roughly 20 million people is home to one of the world’s largest populations of urban ‘refugees’ in the world today. This area has a long history of hosting refugees. Two thousand years ago Joseph, Mary and the Christ child fled to escape persecution in Israel. In the last century, 1 The 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. thousands of Armenians and Palestinians sought refuge when war broke out in their homelands. Since the early 1980s, African refugees, the majority from the Horn of Africa and Sudan, and most recently Iraqis, are refugees in this region. According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the international body for determining refugee status and protecting refugees, at the end of 2007 there were over 100,000 individuals considered refugees here. However there may be hundreds of thousands more here who do not fit the official definition.
While working with refugees, I see and hear how they are suffering. For some, what they left behind is traumatic and has caused great pain, and yet it is with sadness they leave what they know as familiar and ‘home’. The past is often bittersweet. The present situation for them in this city can also be a source of daily pain and suffering. Camps are not allowed so these urban refugees try to find their way along with millions of locals who are also just getting by. Refugees however are on the fringe, limited by language and cultural differences, unequal access to social and health services, education and few job opportunities. They often find the new environment unwelcoming and complex, causing frustration and distress.
According to a UNHCR report from 2002, “eking out a livelihood in a teeming city is vastly different from the life in a refugee camp, where services are freely provided by relief agencies. In this city, families are evicted from their homes because they cannot afford rent, children are denied an education because they cannot afford school fees, and the general health situation of refugees is deteriorating due to their often poor nutrition and lack of adequate living conditions.”
The refugee diaspora is extensive; families are often spread out over different countries, some have stayed behind in the home country and others have made it to North America, Europe or Australia. One of my colleagues lives with his uncle here while his mother is in Kenya, his father in Sudan and a brother now in Israel. Some of the refugees are eager to go back and help to rebuild their country. They embrace the perspective of having a goal for their lives, something to live for. But the situation for example in South Sudan has not improved much since the first step towards independence, neither in opportunities for work nor in safety. Many places are still ruled by bands of thugs who fight each other and rob travellers. Others here dream of going to a Western country although many hardly know what to expect besides what they see on TV or hear from friends or relatives. Often the stories of refugees who travelled are like fairy tales. They are too ashamed to admit that life on the other side of the ocean is not all they expected and even more strange than being here.
Refugees are also anxious about their future. Joseph was told in a dream that it was safe to return with Mary and Jesus to his homeland. Most refugees do not have such clarity or guidance about their futures. For example, before the long awaited peace agreement between north and south, Sudanese refugees could apply to the UNHCR here for refugee status with the prospect of being resettled to a Western country but since the agreement this is now almost impossible. Repatriation, or returning to one’s home country, is still not a viable option since most of their home countries are still unsettled. Refugees say they feel ‘stuck’ here. One program aims to reach out to refugees, offering opportunity and hope amidst the challenges of life in this city. This refugee ministry opened its doors almost 20 years ago under the Episcopal Church. The program now offers a variety of services to refugees in their first few years in the city, including health care, emergency assistance, self-reliance programs, education opportunities and spiritual encouragement. The majority of the staff are refugees themselves, who work alongside other national staff and a variety of international volunteers.
At present, some 30,000 refugees use the services of this program, a significant number being of the majority faith in this region. On any given day in the main city centre premises, there may be groups of ladies waiting for their antenatal appointment, children playing during their school break, youth waiting for their English class to start and young men and women enrolling in a vocational training course. There are so many refugees that need a safe place to come to; a place that listens to their concerns and tries to help. Of course there are frustrations and challenging situations each day. But as one colleague tells me, after graduating from a Christian counselling course offered by the church, “I learned how to deal with people and understand how I can diffuse anger and tension, when people become highly agitated. We seek to treat refugees in a manner of dignity and respect so they can feel what it means to be valued…”. It is our hope that we can offer a helping hand, to do it in love as Christ would, and share some of the hope we know about our certain, future home with our Lord.