In 2016, 65.6 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced, more than at anytime since World War II. That’s roughly equivalent to the entire population of the United Kingdom.
This stunning number was reported last year by the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees on the eve of World Refugee Day, a commemoration that was first held in 2001. Created by the U.N. to commemorate the strength, courage and perseverance of refugees, the day also serves as an opportunity to reflect on the causes of forced migration and what can be done to help this vulnerable and growing population.
Locally, organizations such as the International Rescue Committee in Phoenix, Catholic Charities Community Services and the Safed House, just to name a few, are teaming up to host a series of free events as part of World Refugee Day Phoenix.
“Arizona actually hosts one of the largest refugee communities in the United States,” said Stanford T. Prescott, community engagement coordinator for the IRC in Phoenix. “It’s important to both recognize the adversity that has brought refugees here to the U.S., but also celebrate their contributions to our local society, local economy and to the city of Phoenix.”
The IRC was actually founded in order to address the Jewish refugee problem, which is much less of an issue today than it was 80 years ago. But Prescott noted that the Jewish community continues to be generous of its support of the IRC.
“There is a sense of giving back,” Prescott said, “because many of their stories included experiences of being refugees as well.”
This year’s celebration, which will run from June 20 to 23, features a somewhat expanded range of activities, including encouraging the community to help with one of three local organizations providing assistance to refugees: Gathering Humanity, Welcome to America Project and Helping Hand for Relief and Development.
On Wednesday, June 20, there will be a screening of “This Is Home: A Refugee Story,” a new documentary tracing four displaced Syrian families as they struggle to adapt to life in the U.S. The event will be held at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Phoenix starting at 5:30 p.m.
The screening will be followed by a panel discussion with three refugees and a program supervisor for CCCS. One of the refugees who will be sharing his experience is Sami Assadi, a Palestinian who was displaced during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. His family first relocated to Syria.
“We didn’t have jobs and we had to live in a refugee camp,” Assadi said.
Things improved for his family when his father, an engineer, found work and moved them to Kuwait, where Assadi attended high school. Though without a passport, Assadi was able to obtain the necessary documents to travel to and study in Italy, which he did from 1963 to 1967. All the while, he dreamed of moving to the U.S., which he was finally able to do in 1970.
Assadi is the co-founder of Safed House, with his Jewish wife, Susan. It provides a welcoming place for refugees and recent immigrants, while also helping them share their stories.
The Assadis met at an informal weekly gathering of creative types in New York City in the 1980s. Both recalled an instant attraction.
Susan Assadi said she grew up as a “very Reform” Jew and her family emphasized the values of community service and open-mindedness. Despite the history of conflict between their peoples, their families have been supportive. They have noticed the reactions of others have shifted over time as the political climate has changed.
“Today, just because of the heightened tensions, often you get reactions from people that are sort of surprising,” Susan Assadi said. “I think when we met in the ’80s, things were a little bit more open.
“Sometimes you’ll get reactions or comments that may spark some defensiveness, and I think the key thing is to always remember that the way to unify people is to try to be understanding.”
The couple tries to keep divisive politics out of their marriage and work at Safed House, which is focused on helping refugees adapt to the States.
“We never really addressed our marriage as political,” Sami Assadi said. “We just conducted our marriage as any normal couple would do.
“Here at the Safed House, we are not into political blaming, either. We’re just try to expose the humanistic experience of the refugee and how they cope with a foreign environment.”
One of the ways they’re doing this is through Safed House’s annual essay contest. Started last year, the contest asks refugees and recent immigrants in high school or below to share their experiences of coming to and learning how to live in the U.S. The first- and second-place winners receive a cash award and will be announced on World Refugee Day.
On June 23, there will be a dinner with the theme “celebrating many voices and one humanity,” a celebration of the cultures, talent and food of the refugee families that call the Valley home. The event will be held at Balsz Community Center in Phoenix. Food is being provided by a number of refugee families, including ones from Congo, Afghanistan and Ethiopia.
Desserts will be provided by Syrian Sweets Exchange, which helps Syrian refugees conduct bake sales to earn money and foster connections with the wider community. JN
For more information, go to worldrefugeedayphx.com.