By Dr. Gatluak Ter Thach*
June 20, 2017 (SSNA) — I was young but I remember how I felt when we left my village. People in places that were not attacked were afraid they would be attacked. Everyone ran for safety. News spread in our villages about people being bombed and killed, children kidnapped, women raped, and cows destroyed. Bombs fell on people like leaves off the trees, including on children and even cattle had to run for their lives. Many people and some of my immediate family, lost their lives.
My father made a key decision to lead us somewhere else. We walked at night. He believed in the dark no one would be able to recognize us. Sometimes we backtracked on the same road because we feared we would run into certain people up ahead or because we went the wrong way and needed to return to the main road. We kept a distance from people on the road because at night people fear anyone who walks. While we walked, we faced shortages of food to eat except leaves or leftover food that we found. We cooked during the day, but my father made sure we never cooked in the same place we slept, fearing that food odors might alert someone to track us down. When it rained, we had no place to hide.
We never knew how close we were until one afternoon we arrived in Itang Refugee Camp in Ethiopia. The camp was full of people from several Sudanese tribes. We confused at first even though no one appeared to be our enemy. Yet, we resumed the life but no cows. Life in the refugee camp was difficult than we had in our village. No enough food while refugees, including my parents, could not do anything. We stood in line for hours to receive registration cards for food rations, but it was gone within days. We got a tent but share with another family. The tents were too cold at night and too hot during the days. Refugees got drinking water from the river where they took baths. People died for lack of proper sanitation and good hospitals. When one person got sick, everyone got sick. We survived thanks to the forgiveness and mercy of Kuoth Nhial (God of Heaven). No equipment at the camp for farming. Education was virtually nonexistent. We depended on aids assistance to live. This kind of refugee life is not anything one can choose to live. People are forced from their homes to go through this difficult situation.
According to UNHCR’s new Global Trends report (2017), South Sudan refugees who were forced from their homes and reached Uganda are about 1 million people with many arrive every single day. Ethiopia ranks second with more than half of a million people while Sudan and Kenya, as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo, are other countries with a significant number of South Sudanese refugees. 2 million South Sudanese had left their country for refuge in the neighboring countries. Today, South Sudan is the number one country in Africa and third in the world behind Afghanistan and Syria respectively with displaced refugees. More than 60 percent of South Sudanese refugees are children, many arriving with alarming levels of malnutrition and traumas. Thousands of women and girls have been raped; their homes were burned with all their properties destroyed.
The food situation in South Sudan continues to worsen. More than 100,000 people live in famine and nearly 5 million – 40 percent of the population – are facing extreme hunger. More than one million children under the age of 5 are acutely malnourished. Waterborne diseases, such as cholera and typhoid, from contaminated water, are increasing risks. About 7.5 million South Sudanese are in need of humanitarian assistance, and “half of the population is expected to be affected by extreme hunger by July 2017.” The UNHCR’s Global report disclosed figure of 65.6 million people displaced worldwide which comprises 22.5 refugees and 17.2 million come under the responsibility of UNHCR from Palestinian refugees. Syrians remain with 5.5 million since 2016. People displaced inside their own countries are 40.3 million in numbers. Those who fled their countries increased significantly, with 2.8 million of them in 2016. In average, one in every 113 people worldwide is a displaced person today! War, violence, and persecution are major displaced factors of our human beings. By any measure, this is an intolerable number, and it speaks louder than ever for the need of overcoming and addressing crises world is facing. “We have to do better for these people. For the world in conflict, what is needed is determination and courage, not fear,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.
Most refugees – 84 per cent – were in low- or middle-income countries as of the end 2016, with one in every three (4.9 million people) is hosted in developed countries. Children of refugees, who make up half the world’s refugee population, continue to stomach a disproportionate burden of the suffering due to lack of adequate resources and their countless susceptibilities. Sadly, about 75,000 asylum claimers were children traveling alone from their parents in 2016. The UNHCR report states this number is likely to “underestimate” the correct figure of refugee children’s population. However, refugees, including children, are resilient people. The majority of the refugees do not develop stress-related disorders as results of their previous conditions. They adapt positively to their new environments and society that accept them. Although total resources refugees have at the onset of their journey are not much in comparison to other population, refugees’ entrepreneurial spirit and hard work earn them the respect and resources within the shortest time possible. While it is important to understand and address mental health issues, it is with a greater respect to honor refugee capacity of resilience and adaptation into new places.
“I have crossed so many rivers, I no longer get wet” is a Kurdish refugee saying that identifies the prolonged exposure to traumatic experiences and the resilience of refugees. Resistance is a term that describes the majority of refugees who “experienced transient but not enduring psychological distress after severe stressful experiences.” After a long and often harrowing journey, families find themselves in a new nation – a safe haven to restart their lives. However, fear fueled by anti-refugee rhetoric created unwelcoming uncertainties among refugee populations, and this is why a local inclusion to avoid social isolation and a disconnection from society are critical. In the most extreme cases, abandoned newcomers could be susceptible to extreme views.
What does it mean for you and me to welcome refugees? I believe refugees feel welcome when their accesses to language, economic empowerment, and civic engagement are facilitated. It is important for New Americans and their families to learn English. It allows them to thrive highest and pursue dreams. Economic empowerment is another aspect of the empowerment. New Americans, especially refugees, are hard workers. Though New Americans are 13% of the US population, represent 16% of the workforce and 28% of new job creations, including 40% of Fortune 500, which hires 10 million Americans. Locally especially in Nashville, TN, New Americans contribute exponentially in the local economics. In order to have two ways of integration, it is critical for New Americans to exercise their cultures while attending the activities of their new environment. Inviting them to social gatherings would provide an opportunity for them to participate in their local politics.
Refugees might have gone through a lot, but their resilience and hard work can benefit, not exclusively their families, but their new community. While we commemorate World Refugee Day today, let us remain ourselves that we are the solutions for our global refugee challenges. Happy Refugees’ Day!
Dr. Gatluak Ter Thach lives and works in Nashville, Tennessee, United States.