World Refugee Day 2017: Stories of survival and how you can help

I’m going to take a moment out here to talk about something much more important and serious than travelling and I hope you will take something away from this. This week is World Refugee Week and today, the 20th June, is World Refugee Day.

You will have certainly heard a lot about refugees in the media over the last two years, mostly because of the horrific civil war in Syria that has been raging on since 2011. In the summer of 2015, Europe saw the biggest influx of refugees since WWII. There has been a lot of hysterically negative (plus downright-incorrect) press coverage about refugees and unfortunately this can drown out the positive outcomes and deter the power of the refugee rescue-and-resettlement movement.

Refugees are human beings who have fled their homes and untold horrors, had their lives torn apart and now face an uncertain future. Once safely into Europe, they face a whole other set of issues, including homelessness, poverty and xenophobic abuse. For people to screech ‘Go home! Go back to where you came from!’ at refugees, aside from being utterly demeaning, callus and ignorant, it is also illogical. Many refugees literally do not have homes to return to. They have been destroyed by war. And if they have not already been destroyed, these individuals assume this is an impending reality, hence the desperate need to escape to safety.

When we put names and faces to the word ‘refugee’, suddenly everything becomes a lot more personal and real. Below are three particular refugee stories that have touched me. They show just how important our support of refugees is and how life-changing it can be.


1. Hala and her children – from Aleppo, Syria

Photo credit: The Guardian

For three years, photojournalist Marcel Mettelsiefen followed the lives of a family living in a middle class neighbourhood in Aleppo which had become the front line of the civil war. Hala and Abu-Ali lived there with their four young children. Abu-Ali fought alongside the Free Syrian Army and was eventually captured by ISIS. His family never heard from him again.

During an interview with the cameraman in Syria, 7 year-old Farah is spooked by hearing something fly overhead. She’s able to explain in detail that the sound was a nearby missile, not a projectile, and that it didn’t explode. On the plane journey to Germany, Farah says she is scared their plane will be hit by shells. No child should know those kinds of details but this is the harsh reality for children who grow up in war zones.

After Abu-Ali’s capture, Hala and her four children were forced to flee Syria and begin the long journey to safety in Europe. Four-year-old Sara leaves behind a hand-drawn map of their journey to Germany, heartbreakingly explaining that this is so their father will know where to find them. In 2015, Hala and her children settled in a quiet German town. For the children, the background noise of war was replaced with chirping birds. Here, their futures truly begin.

Click here to watch the full documentary on their journey from Syria to Germany. You can also read this article about their journey.


2. Loujean – from Damascus, Syria

Photo credit: The Guardian

Lucy Pavia and her husband Will had only recently got married when they decided to give their spare room to a Syrian refugee. 22-year-old Loujean, who had fled Syria alone, was to initially stay with Lucy and Will for 6-weeks to help her settle into life in this unfamiliar country. She eventually ended up staying with them for 6 months. Will taught Loujean English in his spare time and Lucy and Loujean developed a sister-like bond, sharing clothes and make-up. Loujean is now studying for a law degree at university and hopes to become a human rights lawyer like Amal Clooney. You read this touching story is it’s entirety here. If you too would like to temporarily house a Syrian refugee, visit the Homes For Syrians website for more details.


3. Yeonmi Park – from Hyesan, North Korea

yeonmi park
Photo credit: Business Insider

Although parts of the media often portray Syrian refugees in a negative light, their plight is generally well-known and understood and there are numerous charities worldwide that are supporting Syrian resettlement. Sadly, this is not the case with North Koreans. The mainstream media and many politicians fail to see the human side of North Korea. Instead the headlines are dominated by stories of a future nuclear war with North Korea or comical stories about its leader, Kim Jong-un. Yeonmi says her country is committing a holocaust of it’s own people while the rest of the world simply looks on. We must readjust our focus and not forget the people of North Korea who continue to suffer in silence. 

Yeonmi was 13 when she escaped North Korea in 2007. Because the North-South Korean border is the most heavily militarised place in the world, refugees have no choice but to escape across the border into China. Here, they must exist undetected by the local authority for fear of being deported to North Korea. I could write reams about her harrowing journey to safety through China and the Gobi desert but you can read all about it in her incredible book ‘In Order to Live’. In 2009, Yeonmi and her mother reached South Korea and in 2014, they were finally  reunited with Yeonmi’s older sister, Eunmi. Yeonmi now works as a human rights activist and gained prominence with her incredibly moving speech at the One Young World Conference in 2014. She is also studying towards a degree in Economics at Columbia University and in December 2016, Yeonmi got married in a fairytale like ceremony; a world away from her old life in North Korea.

There is one particular charity, Liberty In North Korea, who fundraise to help rescue and resettle North Korean refugees. They are only a small organisation but since their start-up in 2004, LiNK have rescued 618 refugees. You read about individual North Korean’s stories of escape and resettlement here. Also, please donate if you can so more lives can be changed. 100% of each donation is used to fund LiNK’s life-saving programs. They are also other ways you can make a difference. Please check out their website for more info.


Other links

If you would like to help the worldwide refugee movement in general, take a look at the links below for information on how to donate or volunteer, amongst other things:

  • Save the Children – Save the Children provides support and aid to children worldwide, and aims to give them their best chance at life. More than 100,000 children have been born as refugees since the Syrian civil war started.
  • The UNHCR – The UN Refugee Agency. 97% of the funds go directly to families in need, in the highest priority crises.
  • Unicef – The UN’s children’s charity supplies clean water, medicine and psychological support.
  • Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) – MSF delivers emergency medical aid to people affected by conflict, epidemics, disasters or exclusion from healthcare. If you are a medical professional, you can even work with them abroad.
  • The Refugee Council – works directly with refugees to help them rebuild their lives, amongst other things.
  • International Rescue Committee – founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein, the IRC helps people whose lives and livelihoods are shattered by conflict and disaster to survive, recover, and gain control of their future.
  • Red Cross – “refusing to ignore people in crisis”, the Red Cross responds to a variety of conflicts and natural disasters. Read how they’re helping refugees.


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