The occurrence of World Refugee Day in June and the celebration of this country’s birthday in July bring to mind those who are displaced, without a country to call home, without the most basic sense of security.
I grew up in a refugee culture in Hong Kong. As early as fourth grade, I translated documents such as utility bills and tax notifications for Chinese relatives who could not read English, Hong Kong’s official language.
Our dinner table conversations were peppered with stories of acquaintances who lost, not only material possessions, but also their social positions and professional credentials. It is ironic that I now serve an agency that started life 70 years ago resettling refugees from war-torn Europe.
Today, Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the global church fully respond to the plight of refugees. The United Nations recently reported that 15.4 million refugees fled across national borders in 2012 and 28.8 million people were displaced within their own countries.
Recently, Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., led a delegation to visit Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. He described an elderly woman who saw her three sons killed and a family of 20 supported by the hard labor of only one 19-year-old son who is now suspended for working without a proper permit. In a family of 27, there was only one man and he was wounded by shrapnel, while an elderly diabetic mother lay in the corner without medication.
Refugees are often crowded into “shelters” not always equipped to handle their basic needs or numbers. The conditions can be horrific: over 100-degree heat or extreme cold, crowding, absence of water, sanitation and disposal of solid waste.
Less visible but equally devastating is the loss of one’s language, culture, community and the basic elements of identity and dignity. Often, the host countries take on burdens that create stresses and resentments within their own population.
Many refugees also suffer loss of families and homes, torture, starvation. In 2012, 46 percent of refugees were under 18. These young people may only have intermittent education, limited nutrition and face the risk of being trafficked. Some of this early trauma and stress can affect brain development leading to problems with aggression, deficits in learning and memory, social withdrawal, depression and compromised functioning of the nervous and immune systems.
But our collective efforts can make a difference. We have seen successes. Our nation was built on these types of refugees who crafted productive new lives for themselves and their children.
If we do not turn our backs, if we do not allow ourselves to get overwhelmed, if we stay with the challenges and do what we can, providing food, education, social and psychological counseling, if we support livelihood training and options, water and sanitation solutions, if we advocate for peaceful resolutions, if we call attention to the work of resettlement, if we facilitate the return to homelands, and healing, then we can rebuild lives and communities.
Woo is the president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.