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A Reflection on World Refugee Day

June 20, 2012 - Posted by Guest

A post by National Immigration Forum policy intern Hilla Shimshoni:

Today, on World Refugee Day, it is important to recognize the challenges refugees face — and also the contributions refugees have made to the United States.

In 2011, the number of people who were forced to flee across borders reached 800,000, an 11-year high. By the end of the year, 42.5 million people were refugees, were displaced internally in their home countries, or were in the process of seeking asylum.

In 2010 and early 2011, I had the opportunity to work with refugee communities in Egypt, where I worked at an organization that provides refugees with legal aid as they await resettlement. For many years now, people fleeing an array of war-torn countries have converged on the already crowded streets of Cairo. Refugees and undocumented people living in the shadows in Cairo include Sudanese, Iraqis, Somalis and Ethiopians. The U.N. tallied some 40,000 refugees living in Egypt officially in 2010, but the real figure is far higher — likely north of 250,000.

Embroiled in its own political turbulence and facing severe underfunding for its refugee programs from the international community, Cairo is far from an ideal place to land. Hatred and violence toward the refugee population are daunting, and medical and educational services are scarce.

And so today, on a personal level, I must remember those who came to our organization but two years later still remain in limbo: African women who endured a monthlong escape from violent warlords in Somalia only to be sexually abused or preyed on by Egyptian employers who refuse to pay them for weeks of labor, and Iraqi families who escaped Baghdad and assassination attempts in retaliation for their family members’ work with Coalition forces or American companies. I remember today that despite our nation’s promise to help those Iraqis who helped us, we have failed them and have continued to ignore the huge refugee problem that resulted from the war.

But I also want to highlight refugees who, thanks to U.S. resettlement policies, were able to come to this country and reach unimaginable success and accomplishments. Their select ranks include Nobel Prize winner Philip Emeagwali, Oscar-winning director Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times editor Max Frankel, Iranian writer and women’s rights activist Mahnaz Afkhami, political theorist and philosopher Hannah Arendt, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and, of course, Albert Einstein.

For the past several years, the United States has capped its refugee admissions at 80,000 per year. As humanitarian crises and political instability around the world continue to produce extensive displacement, we must continue to welcome these new Americans and recognize their contributions.

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