By Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo
The occurrence of World Refugee Day in June and the celebration of this country’s birthday in July bring to mind the many people who are displaced, without a country to call home, without the most basic sense of security that comes with that. I grew up in a refugee culture in Hong Kong where millions of people had fled the Communist revolution. As early as fourth grade, I translated documents such as utility bills and tax notifications for relatives who could not read English, the official language of Hong Kong. Our dinner table conversations were peppered with stories of acquaintances who had lost not only material possessions, but also their social positions and professional credentials.
It is ironic that I would now serve an agency that started life 70 years ago resettling refugees from war-torn Europe. Today, Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the global Church are fully engaged in responding to the plight of refugees. For 2012, the UN reported 15.4 million refugees who had fled across national borders and 28.8 million people displaced within their own countries.
Recently Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, the Chairman of the CRS board, led a delegation to visit Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. He described an elderly woman who saw her three sons killed; a family of 20 supported by the hard labor of only one 19-year-old son who is now suspended for working without a proper permit. In a family of 27, there was only one man and he was wounded by shrapnel, while an elderly diabetic mother lay in the corner without medication. (Read Bishop Kicanas’ reflections on the trip.)
Refugees are often crowded into “shelters” which are not equipped to handle their basic human needs nor numbers: make-shift tents, abandoned buildings, garages, “lean-tos” on the sides of existing homes. The conditions can be horrific: over 100 degree heat, extreme cold, crowding, absence of water, sanitation and disposal of solid waste. Less visible but equally devastating is the loss of one’s language, culture, community and the basic elements of identity and dignity. Often the host countries take on burdens that create stresses and resentments within their own population.
Many refugees have suffered unbelievable trauma: loss of families and homes, torture, starvation. In 2012, 46 percent of refugees were under 18 years of age. These young people may only have intermittent education, limited nutrition and face the risk of being trafficked. Research shows that early trauma and stress affect brain development leading to problems with aggression, deficits in learning and memory, social withdrawal, depression and compromised functioning of the nervous and immune systems.
Yet we know that our collective efforts can make a difference! We have seen successes. Our nation was built on these: refugees from past decades who crafted productive new lives for themselves and their children. These include my friends from Hong Kong, many Vietnamese and Cambodians, and, of course, our grandparents or great-grandparents who often hailed from Europe.
If we do not turn our backs; if we do not allow ourselves to get overwhelmed; if we stay with the challenges and do what we can, providing food, education, social and psychological counseling; if we support livelihood training and options, water and sanitation solutions; if we advocate for peaceful resolutions; if we call attention to the work of resettlement; if we facilitate the return to homelands and healing: then we can rebuild lives and communities.
In a recent meeting I attended with Pope Francis, he called us to combine our faith and charity to assist the individuals caught in these unspeakable tragedies. He told us to not abandon them as “their face is the face of Christ,” who was also a refugee when his parents fled to Egypt from Herod’s murderous rampage.
Dr. Woo is president & CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. This article is part of her ongoing monthly column, Our Global Family, written for Catholic News Service.