UN World Refugee Day Focuses on Youth

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
June 20, 2003

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Today is World Refugee Day, a day designated by the United Nations to draw attention to the plight of the men, women, and children who have been forced to flee their homes in the face of persecution and armed conflict.

This year's theme is "Refugee Youth: Building the Future." Angelina Jolie, Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), is in Washington, D.C. to kick off the celebrations.

Despite the hardships suffered by refugee children, they have the same desires as children everywhere.

"If you ask refugee kids what they want, it's not that different from kids in the U.S.," said Joung-Ah Ghedini, a UNHCR spokesperson who has spent the last seven years working in refugee camps in Bosnia, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Kosovo, Serbia, and Eritrea. "They'll say 'What I would like is to have my family be safe and happy and healthy and to have the possibility to be whatever I want to be when I grow up.' Refugee kids don't know their limitations; they still have hopes and fears. Some of them want to be king."

Naw Mu Si lived in a refugee camp along the border between Thailand and Burma for 14 years. She and her family fled their home a day ahead of the soldiers who came and burned it down.

"Although I felt much safer in the camp than I would have in my own country, the camp was like being kept in a human zoo; there was nothing to do but sit and wait for the international community to come and provide food for us," she said. "We were physically still alive but emotionally dead inside."

Naw Mu Si, a member of the much persecuted Karen ethnic group, is one of the few refugees who has made her way out of the camps and managed to rebuild her life. She is currently in the United States to further her education, and works as an intern for Refugees International.

"My people are still suffering and repeatedly experiencing the cruelty that is committed by the military regime in Burma," she said. "I hope that one day I will be able to return to my own country and be a part of a new Burma in which all ethnic groups can enjoy our freedom and justice. Although I was not able to enjoy my childhood in my country, I hope that my children will not be refugees. I hope they will be able to live in my country, Burma."

Of the 20 million refugees receiving assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), approximately 12 million live in camps or similar conditions. Around six million are IDPs—internally displaced persons—who have had to abandon their homes but remain in their own country.

UNHCR camps, which can range in size from 200 to 800,000 people, provide a safe haven, food, medical care, and school for the younger children. Living in a camp is better than living under the constant threat of massacres, rape, beatings, and mutilation, but it is still wretched.

"While we are looking to mainstream kids in camps into the modern world, in most refugee scenarios they don't have classrooms, they don't have a notebook, they don't have a pencil," said Joung-Ah Ghedini. "You wind up with makeshift classrooms, which could be sitting under a tree, drawing in the dirt, teaching them to read, to write, and do basic math, and at the same time give them some structure in their lives."

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