World Refugee Day: A year after the WHS, and the day I sat with a young refugee from Syria and took a glimpse of our shared future
Every year on June 20, the world commemorates World Refugee Day. Last year, I had the privilege of participating in the UN's World Humanitarian Summit which proposed a global humanitarian agenda to tackle the refugee crisis. How have we shaped the world since? At the pre-summit consultation in Berlin, I met Ahmad, a Syrian refugee kid who had just crossed the borders. He taught me some lessons that will remain with me as I reflect on the future we share together.
Last year, in Istanbul, UN agencies, heads of state, civil society actors came together for the first ever World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) to propose a global humanitarian agenda. Leading up to the 2-day conference was at least 2 years of consultation all around the world which paved way for multi-stakeholder coalitions such as our ASEAN Youth DRR Network and Global Compact for Youth in Humanitarian Action.
According to the Agenda for Humanity, half of the 1.4 billion people in countries inflicted by natural or man made disasters are under the age of 20. The WHS is testament to the power of young people to organize, consult, discuss, evaluate and report on a solid, but diversified voice. Through the UN Major Group for Children and Youth, we were able to represent young refugees and other vulnerable groups - from the ASEAN secretariat in Jakarta, to the Global Youth Consultation in Qatar, many other cities, until finally in Istanbul, and back to the UN Headquarters in New York.
After all the flights flown, meetings attended, calling cards exchanged and reports written, I am not sure how often we reflect on the privilege we carry, and how much responsibility it entails. Who do we really represent in all these youth leadership programs and conferences - and if ever we are entitled to do so, how deeply do we really? If I look deeply into the past year, being able to attend meetings with the UN was a political bliss, but it was not what has truly shaped my convictions as a youth activist.
The WHS Thematic Consultation in Berlin, Germany took place at a very intense time of September 2015. It felt quite strange to be talking about refugees, when a number of them were supposedly in the same city, waiting to be registered. I asked around where they could possibly be, but nobody had any idea. On the last day, I decided to sneak out of the lunch buffet and search online for where the Muslim community lives, hoping to get some leads. I eventually took a cab to “Arab Strasse” (formally known as Sonnellanee) and found Risa Chicken, what turns out to be a highly-rated halal fast food chain. Just like a stalker, I sat beside a random Arab-looking family.
And this cute little boy gleams, “Waalaykum salaam.”
I introduced myself as Maryam, what I had chosen as my Arabic and Hebrew pen name. His name was Ahmad.
My next questions were in English, but it turns out, they can only speak Arabic and a bit of Dutch. I quickly recalled to myself as many words as I could from crash courses, Arab restaurants, books, etc.
“Khaif halek Ahmad?” – How are you Ahmad?
“Tamam, alhamdulillah!” – Good, praise God!
Surprisingly, our conversation lasted an hour, as this new found friend excitedly responded to my confusing attempts at his language, with his parents eventually joining us, as well as a couple of Arab waiters. The next thing we knew, we were all laughing our hearts out!
“Min ayna enta?” – Where are you from?
He was also very curious about where I came from. “Ana min Filipin (I am from the Philippines.” And his mom sketched a world map in thin air, as the little boy pondered where in the world that is.
He looked amused. “Enta Muslimah??” – Are you a Muslim??
I said, we are all praying for your people.
Through a mix of nods, hand gestures, and what little Arabic I could struggle with, I understood that he was the second child, with an elder sister and a baby sister. All 5 of them travelled through 5 countries quite recently. Ahmad enthusiastically explained his journey, with an interactive match of hand gestures.
“Min Syria…. Sudan…” – and wittily exclaiming – “sahara (desert)!!!”
“Min Sudan…. Libya…”
“Min Libya… Italia…”
“Min Italia… Berlin.”
I asked: “Min Germany… Khalas?” From Germany, it’s over?
To which his mom smiled and replied, “Inshaallah.” God willing.
Ahmad’s father asked me where and how I studied Arabic. He thought I learned it in Dubai because he said my accent sounds different. He was too kind, insisting that my Arabic was good and gave me two thumbs up!
“Ta3m ladheedh?” Delicious food? I asked.
“Naam, ta3m Arabi!” Yes, the mom said, Arabian food!
I noticed they were packing the meal which they shared among themselves, realizing in shame that I had bought the same plate only for myself. I tried to give them food, using hand gestures to describe how the plate is too big for me. But they just won’t take it.
They wouldn’t take a single thing.
Instead, to my amusement, Ahmad got my number, and called me his Ustadhza A,B,C. In return, he said, he will teach me alif, ba, ta, the Arabic alphabets.
As we parted ways, I simply had to tell him how much this moment meant to me, in the only way I knew how.
“Ya Ahmad, enta sadiqi jaeed jiddan.”
Ahmad, you are my very good friend.
Your heart will melt with sheer joy, when he laughed out loud! We ended the conversation with a “groupie” with his father. I told them we had a meeting with the United Nations and we were discussing the refugee crisis. I don’t know if they understood anything from what I said, as my vocabulary had gone empty. I just gave Ahmad my World Humanitarian Summit pen as a souvenir, hoping someday he will understand what it was all about.
It was not my first time to converse with refugees. I had served as a teacher for refugee schools for who the UNHCR deems as the most actively persecuted people in the planet - the Rohingyas from Myanmar. I also had many Syrian and Palestinian classmates. But there was something particularly compelling about this boy, that the more I listen to him, the more I had a glimpse of what the future could hold for him.
I did not see begging or self-pity.
He just wanted to learn.
When I reached Turkey, before heading to the WHS, I made it a point to visit refugee camps and assist in whatever way possible. With the help of Risale Nur, I reached Sanliurfa, a city close to the Syrian border. At a daycare center, a little boy named Nasr stood straight in front of our group to “inform” us: "There is a war in Syria. We lost our families and we don't want to see this anymore." I was not sure how I could explain to him the complexity of the situation. There, in Urfa, the local population have their own problems, especially the economically disadvantaged community of the Kurds.
We hear it time and again that youth are the next generation of world leaders. The fact is – many children and youth cannot even begin to imagine what the future holds for them. Half of the people affected by crises are children and youth. Refugee education often sits at an vulnerable position, while needing both the rapidness of humanitarian workers and at the same time, the sustainability of the development sector. Not to mention, youth – the in-between generation - is often confronted with the dual responsibilities of balancing both education and livelihood. Neumann, a film maker, once said about the refugees whose lives he followed: “When I looked around the camps and saw so many children out of school I often wondered what the world had lost.”
To those of us more privileged to read this right now at the comfort of our homes or offices – be the voice of young refugees like Ahmad, Nasr, and many others, who are eager to learn from and share with a world that not only all children and youth deserve to inherit, but that they are capable of inheriting. Many young innovators today have found their own paths. I’m listing a few of them here to give you some ideas:
Check out the refugee schools in your community and what kind of support do they need. In Malaysia, I used to volunteer for a student organization Utm Aiesec which has been supporting refugee schools by providing volunteer teachers. My good friend Anna Karina Jardin, an artist from the Philippines, also shares her talents by conducting therapeutic art workshops with children from conflict areas.
Raise funds for organizations that support refugees around the world. In Boston, U.S.A., I met Adam Khafif of Lisn Up who had just collaborated with Malaysian singer Yuna for a clothing collection that raised awareness on the refugee crisis. 50% of the proceeds went to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI). In Turkey, I was amused by the work ofAl Karimet, a fashion design company works with Syrian women who sew handmade Syrian products and helps produce them to the mainstream market.
When was the last time you lent them your voice, to your own sphere of influence? How are the refugees living in your own community? How are you using your skills and resources to #RestoreHumanity and #ReShapeAid? When I interviewed Adam back in Boston, he shared his father’s most important advice to him as a budding entrepreneur: “to do something you love, and do something that benefits others.”
Dr. Hany El Banna of the World Humanitarian Forum once said: “We will be a part of the past, but you (the youth) make the future.”
The WHS taught us that young people are not only victims of crises, but agents for change. In every corner of the world, every field we get ourselves into, we, the youth, all share in this onegeneration full of hope. If we need to remind each other in order to act, let it be known that we will only be as good as our weakest members. How far have we gone to restore that future, or better yet, teach, build, invest in each other to reshape it together? For more information on the post-WHS agenda, you may check: www.agendaforhumanity.org
Regine Guevara is a peace activist specializing in youth and women empowerment, and inter-faith dialogue. She is currently a fellow for the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network's Local Pathways Fellowship Program, focusing on peace building in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. She graduated with an MA in Conflict Resolution from Brandeis University, and the Program on Negotiation of Harvard Law School. Raised Christian in the Philippines, with a Jewish conversio ancestry, and a student of Sufi Islam and yoga, Regine embraces her multi-cultural heritage as she travels the world, learns different religions and cultures, cooks global cuisines, and catwalks fashion trends.