As you read this, I would like to draw your attention to a few events happening right now. From the beginning of the day, at least 164 Syrians in the Middle East and counting have made the tough decision to flee their war torn country. In Africa, citizens fleeing unrest and turmoil in South Sudan have sought safety in countries such as, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Malawi. As more citizens flee regional conflicts, some end up in countries struggling with their own economies such as my country Zimbabwe. These are just glimpses into what Kevin Sullivan aptly describes as one of the most daunting human crisis in recent times – the Refugee Crisis.
Exposed to the harsh realities of conflict, persecution and war, families have been stripped of their national identity and belonging, removed from the only place they knew to be home, relegated to the consideration of neighbouring nations states to accommodate them. Let me put this into perspective. As of May 2017, 65 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide; 22.5 million are refugees; 10 million rendered stateless and only 189,000 resettled by the end of 2016 (UNHCR, 2017). The figures are staggering. Yet, these figures represent refugees…people like you and me. The only difference is that they have limited access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement, because of reservations allowed through the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. In a nutshell, they have been disempowered both at home and in the host countries.
Why do I say this and where am I in all this? I am passionate about refugees, ladies and gentlemen because I believe we tend to forget the reality of their struggles. Refugees are usually the forgotten population of the world. That “invisible” section of society tucked away from public view in camps located on the fringes of host nations…away from media interest except when it is to endorse the narrative that their growing numbers and need pose a threat to whatever country hosting them. Advocating for the empowerment of women, men and children who are refugees today is often met with lack of interest, defensive positions and cautious reminders of how nations must be careful to protect themselves from ‘terrorism’ triggered by refugees. Today, citizens of seven countries are not easily allowed into the United States of America (USA); perhaps others do so quietly, without announcing it, and simply put ‘soft’ policy fences or physical barriers. Such is the discourse hindering the empowerment of refugees.
I can imagine that there are some right now, trying to cross the dangerous Sahara desert. Others are fighting the raging Mediterranean sea with the assistance of “traffickers” in the hope of reaching safely on land. Often, many perish in the rough seas, and few make it to land yet among those, it is only to be denied entry into Europe and sent back home. Women and children especially bear the brunt of displacement and fleeing conflict. It is a gloomy picture indeed. International agencies such as World Relief, World Vision, Mercy Corps and others are working to assist refugees. Notably, the United Nations Refugee Agency provides three solutions: repatriation, local integration and resettlement. These options have been most difficult to exercise, because governments do not easily concede to accepting asylum seekers for a variety of reasons. Yet, every nation is and has at one point directly or indirectly been affected by the refugee crisis. This narrative must change.
Through my work, I advocate for the recognition of the rights of refugees. I believe I can change the narrative from disempowerment to empowerment. I have done this by working within a team to develop livelihoods strategies for refugees awaiting repatriation, resettlement or integration. Seemingly small steps to empower women, men and children in the camps but imagine if we all joined ongoing efforts to support refugees? The impact would be greater. You can also play your part in rethinking the plight of refugees. In as much as we all represent varying interests for the development and transformation of Africa and the world at large, let us not leave the refugees behind. Never! Let us raise awareness by speaking out and calling for nations at conflict to make concerted efforts towards peace. Let each one reach out and transform the life of a refugee.
My contribution as a young leader is to raise the voice of awareness about reclaiming the rights of refugees as citizens worthy of just treatment and recognition. Let us empower refugees. Empowerment means facilitating and giving back refugees their voice, dignity and self-worth. Empowerment is the process of becoming stronger, becoming more confident and particularly controlling one’s life and claiming individual rights. I envision a resolution to the refugee crisis, grounded in empowerment, through livelihoods training and calling for inclusive policies. By sharing stories of resilience and courage, refugees are empowered and we recognise them as citizens who can contribute to the economies of their own and other nations. Through empowerment, we can say…refugees are people too, with families, and life aspirations.
I conclude with a remark by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filipo Grandi reminds us again that, “Refugees are people too, with skills, ideas, hopes and dreams. Their journeys of resilience and innovation, energy and drive shape their own destinies, given the chance. How do we give refugees a chance? Through empowerment. I stand with and for refugees. You can also do the same and bring about change. Refugee lives matter.
NB: This is a transcript of the Ignite Talk I presented during my institute at Appalachian State University under the Mandela Washington Fellowship 2017 Theme, “Empowerment, Innovation and Servant Leadership”
- Rodi Said/reuters in http://www.newsweek.com/undermine-isis-we-should-welcome-syrian-refugees-400229