You Escape. You Find Refuge. Then What?
Voni Glick & Yotam Polizer on the ways in which refugees around the world are building new lives in their host countries.
Today, more than 68.5 million people around the world are displaced — the most since World War II. 25.4 million are refugees, over 50% of them under the age 18, forced to seek safety abroad. Crises in countries like Syria or South Sudan continue with no end in sight, contributing to an increasingly desperate reality of global displacement spanning multiple generations.
IsraAID works to create a space for refugees of all ages and backgrounds to transcend their situation and gain the skills and resilience to build a stable life wherever they may be. Our teams, made up of Jewish and Arab Israelis, internationals and members of both refugee and host communities, build bridges across divides in countries like Greece, Kenya, Bangladesh, Iraq and Germany.
This work challenges the stereotypical images of refugees. People are still being forced from their homes every day, but a true picture of the refugee reality is not simply one of dramatic escape or the desperation of the journey and the limbo of camp life. It is equally about what happens a week, a month, or a year after arrival in a new place, as well as the sustained commitment of refugees and those who work with them to create a better future.
In the desert of Kenya’s impoverished Turkana region, Kakuma Refugee Camp and Kalobeyei Settlement Area are home to 185,000 refugees, the majority fleeing ongoing conflict in South Sudan. The camp has stood for more than 25 years, making it the only reality that many people there have known. Nearly 60% of its residents are children, growing up in a risky and, at best, unstable environment. IsraAID’s child resource centers in Kakuma and Kalobeyei are havens for these children, with activities, psychological support, and safe drinking water, staffed entirely by refugees from across the region. Every month, 300 children attend this center in Kakuma, creating a semblance of routine and a place where they can simply be kids.
Building a life filled with activities and dreams is crucial in these situations. Fabrice, a father of 5 in his mid-thirties from the Democratic Republic of Congo, teaches karate in Kakuma. A blackbelt, Fabrice uses the limited resources available — food sacks repurposed as punching bags — to build the confidence of his students. “Being a refugee is not easy”, says Fabrice. Yet Fabrice is persevering, utilizing his skills and the opportunity provided by the center to build a life for himself, his children, and his students.
Living in a settlement in Thessaloniki, Greece, Mohammed, an Iranian refugee and a volunteer at the Sindos Community Center, has more in common with Fabrice than one might expect. Though the Middle East Refugee Crisis is relatively recent, most refugees in places like Sindos are now expected to stay for the long-term.
IsraAID has been operating in Greece since the height of the crisis in 2015, when a combined 850,000 people arrived by sea on rubber dinghies — sometimes reaching up to 10,000 people daily. Today, there are nearly 60,000 refugees and asylum seekers still in Greece.
The Sindos center, which IsraAID runs in partnership with the grassroots organization Be A Robin, provides a meeting place and a much-needed sense of community for refugees living in nearby shelters.
“We’ve got Muslims and Christians, Farsi-speakers, Arabic-speakers, French-speakers. Here it doesn’t matter,” Mohammed explains. The center offers English and Greek classes, an open art studio, working internet and community events. As refugees in Thessaloniki look to integrate, find work, and cope with the stresses and strains of daily life, the Greek, international and refugee staff and volunteers in Sindos do everything they can to teach useful skills and build a support structure for all involved.
A similar ethos can be found on the island of Lesbos, one of the main entry points for refugees to Greece and Europe and home to a refugee population of around 10,000. Most are stuck, awaiting a decision on their status or permission to move to the mainland.
On Lesbos, IsraAID has partnered with the Israeli youth movement ‘Hashomer Hatzair’ to run the School of Peace. 170 children are bused in daily from nearby refugee camps. Many are too young to know a time before their homes were struck by war. The School of Peace is the only one on the island offering students mother tongue education in Arabic, Congolese French, Dari Farsi, and Kurdish, taught by fellow refugees from their own communities. For many, this is the first school they have ever been to.
For these children, whose families can spend months or even years waiting on Lesbos, the school provides a taste of normal life. For the teachers, it offers skills, income and valuable work experience. The model of the school, bringing together different languages, religions and nationalities under one roof for a shared goal, is a powerful demonstration of the possibilities for the wider community as it deals with the harsh realities and tensions of refugee life and integration.
Through our work with IsraAID, we have seen the power and potential of the refugees we work with as they write a new story for themselves and their communities. It is a story of learning new languages, of adjusting to new surroundings. It is 500 people, Arabic-, Kurdish-, Farsi- and French-speaking Muslims and Christians, celebrating Eid-al-Fitr last week in a school in Greece run by an Israeli humanitarian aid organization. It is a youth football team in a Kenyan refugee camp dreaming of the World Cup. It is a group of young refugee leaders volunteering with Berlin’s homeless population during Easter.
Yet, it is also a tale of the serious and often tedious daily challenges facing refugees, host communities and the people who work with them.
World Refugee Day is a reminder that we must face these challenges head-on. We stand committed to this cause, and IsraAID will continue to support the needs of refugees and their hosts in the countries we work in for as long as needed.
Navonel Voni Glick & Yotam Polizer are co-CEOs of IsraAID.