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"Your Situation Touches Us": Connecting Kids with the World's Refugees

"Your Situation Touches Us": Connecting Kids with the World's Refugees - June 13, 2007 - Citizens for Global Solutions, June Communique
- Therese M. Gales, Public Affairs Manager, ARC

Messages to refugees in Sudan from high school students in Minneapolis
“My life is different from you guys because I don’t worry about where to sleep, and if I am going to walk without shoes.”

“I wish I could help you guys down there and like donate some money or something, but I don’t have a job.  But I could get like $5….  I wish that a lot of families … could live the way we do because everyone deserves freedom and happiness.”

“Are you good at basketball?  What kind of games do you play?...A lot of people are dying here, too…here in Minneapolis people are being shot over dumb things.”

“I just want to let you know there are people here who want to know your story.”

“I really appreciate hearing about your stories because now I count the blessings that I have.  I have come to realize that everybody does not have what we have.  It’s really sad to see something bad go on in other countries.”

“[We] won’t forget what is happening.  This is important to us. Your situation touches us.”

Every day at the American Refugee Committee (ARC), we face the challenge of bringing our work—which takes place overseas—alive for people here in the United States.  The stories of the refugees with whom we work unfold in far corners of the globe, and it is sometimes challenging to be heard “above the noise” of local concerns.   Yet we’ve seen kids in the U.S. develop meaningful connections with refugees…despite the miles and the vastly different life experiences that separate them.

The ARC Story:  Working Worldwide

The American Refugee Committee (ARC) is an international humanitarian relief agency based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  At ARC, we work worldwide to restore the self-sufficiency of nearly 2 million refugees and others uprooted by tragedy in war-torn places such as Liberia, Pakistan, and Sudan.  These people have lost everything:  their homes, their family members, their communities, their countries, their way of life…everything they have known.  ARC staff help start the rebuilding process by partnering with refugees to provide shelter or clean water, to stop the spread of disease, to counsel survivors of gender-based violence, or to restore livelihoods through small business loans.   And when it is finally safe for people to return home, we help facilitate that journey as well.

“People Here Want to Hear Your Story”: A Minneapolis Classroom Responds

About two months ago, I conducted a presentation on world refugee issues for a group of teenagers at an urban high school in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  The students reside in some of the most economically-disadvantaged neighborhoods in Minneapolis (in fact, estimates show that more than 80 percent of students in the school receive free or reduced lunch).  Their teacher explained that many of the students have been forced into adulthood early and face complex challenges at home and at school. She also mentioned that, on the day prior to our presentation, the class discussion had degenerated into arguments.  “The students were so absorbed in their own concerns and in school-related issues…class ended on an extremely divisive tone,” she added.

As part of our presentation, we shared stories and photographs of some of the refugees with whom we work around the world   We showed the students a photo of hundreds of refugees fleeing by foot through the jungles on the Thai-Cambodian border, each carrying what little remained of their worldly belongings...a photo of sixth graders studying math in their “classroom”, which consisted of a chalkboard and a cluster of rocks under a tree on a Rwandan hillside…a photo of two children in Darfur standing outside their tiny makeshift hut made from plastic bags and twigs…and a photo of a young, malnourished Sudanese refugee sitting under a mosquito net, eating his small food ration.

We then shared photos and stories of people who, despite the long refugee journey, had somehow found the strength to rebuild—a Sierra Leonean refugee proudly standing by her small shop which she opened with a $50 microloan…a tsunami survivor in Thailand who is back to work fishing thanks to his newly restored fishing boat…and two Burmese refugee girls smiling as they walked through a refugee camp, books in tow, to their new school.

At the end of our presentation, we asked the students to write letters to the refugees.  Their responses included a mixture of straightforward questions, frank observations, and heartfelt words of encouragement (a small sample of the student responses can be found at the beginning of this article). The Minneapolis students had truly heard the stories of people on the other side of the world, and they connected with them at a personal level.  One student wrote, “People here want to hear your story,” while another so eloquently added, “Your situation touches us.”

Last week, we received a call from the high school teacher informing us that the Minneapolis students had felt so moved by what they had learned about refugees, that they had decided to educate the school about the global refugee crisis and raise funds by asking students to contribute their pocket change over the lunch hour.  And yesterday, the students proudly presented ARC with a check for $58 to support refugees.

Connecting the Global to Local:  Kids Take a Stand for Refugees

This urban classroom isn’t the only place we’ve seen kids connecting with refugees—in fact, students across the country have responded in a myriad of creative ways.  We’ve seen kids using their entrepreneurial skills by opening their own “coffee shop” in school, selling coffee to their teachers to raise money for refugees. We’ve seen them using their artistic skills by hosting music concerts and auctioning off their handmade artwork.  We’ve seen kids just having fun raising money by selling “dream date packages” and by organizing dodge ball tournaments.  And we’ve even seen a group of elementary school kids host a toy sale—each student brought in a few of their own used toys one day, and the gym became an impromptu toy store where they sold their toys to each other to raise money for refugees.

World Refugee Day:  Remembering and Celebrating

One of the most inspiring aspects of working at ARC is seeing people step forward literally every day to offer hope and opportunity to people whom they will never meet…doing what they can to support people on the other side of the globe who have lost everything and have nowhere else to turn.

And, although it is sometimes a challenge for us to connect global refugee issues at a local level, when we share the real human story that connects us, people do respond.

This June 20th is World Refugee Day. Yes, let’s take a step back on that day to celebrate the courage and resilience of the 33 million people around the world who’ve been displaced from their homes.  And, like the students in Minneapolis, let’s also realize how interconnected we are… and vow that we, too, “won’t forget what’s happening.”


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