For Refugee Children, "Home" is a Changing Concept

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
March 9, 2004

For many children in the world, their last memory of home is of being roused from sleep in the middle of the night, bundled into whatever clothing comes quickly to hand, and running and hiding to escape marauding raiders, bombs, fires, and gunshots.

Today there are an estimated 20 million children who have been forced to flee their homes; around 10 million were forced to leave their homeland.

For many of these children, the concept of "home" is forever altered. No longer a house, a hut (or even a tent), a neighborhood, friends, or family, home becomes a distant memory one needs to recreate.

"To Feel at Home" is the theme for this year's annual poster contest sponsored by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

The contest is designed to encourage U.S. students to view life from the perspective of a child forced by war or persecution to leave their homes, perhaps forever.

"How refugees rebuild their lives and feel at home can depend on what food, shelter, family, friends, and resources they have available," actress Angelina Jolie, goodwill ambassador for the UNHCR, said when announcing this year's contest. (See poster contest rules.)

No Place Like Home

Challenges refugees face vary greatly. Some are able to eventually return home, others will spend years in tent-city refugee camps, still others will emigrate and face the challenge of fitting into an entirely new and different culture. Some children will face these challenges with their families; many are orphans.

Even when refugees are able to return home, life is not easy. In some cases, another family has occupied the family's home. In the absence of paperwork proving prior ownership—and in many cases such paperwork never existed—possession is nine-tenths of the law.

Sometimes there are no homes left standing.

"Some of the villages in Kosovo were 98 percent destroyed," 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, Eritrea, and Colombia.

"In many cases the infrastructure was destroyed not as collateral damage, but quite deliberately" Ghedini said. "As soldiers leave an area they contaminate the water, physically smash pumps. We saw it in the Congo, in Rwanda—really it's quite common."

Continued on Next Page >>


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