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On World Refugee Day, celebrate refugees' stories, cultures, and lives

by PAUL BONNELL Contributing Writer
| June 16, 2022 1:00 AM

W. Kerr Scott Dam and Reservoir is located in the Yadkin River Valley, North Carolina. Twenty-five years ago, on a Memorial Day weekend camping trip there, I encountered two people from Mexico at the day use area, and we struck up a conversation in halting Spanish.

I don’t recall much of the conversation, but I remember that we laughed about how little language overlap we actually had. They had studied Spanish only a few years in school. I had taken some classes, too. They told me they were “Indios,” or “Indians,” indigenous people from Oaxaca, a state in southern Mexico. They asked where I was from. I told them I was born in Vietnam. We talked for a few minutes. Then the conversation ended. I went back to my picnic. They kept swimming. Who knows their stories and how they came to be in North Carolina? Who knows the trajectory and arc of their journeys?

Currents of human migration flow across the world, with hundreds of millions on the move. Distinguished out of this overall geographical human movement, refugees occupy a particular status — those seeking shelter from violence, war, and persecution. These are forced migrations, not mere relocations for preference. Refugees are spurred by armed conflicts, political instabilities, civil wars, invasions, genocides, ethnic violence, global destabilization, climate-related crises, and more — the complex forces of history that are geopolitics, economics, and culture.

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees arose out of Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a United Nations document from 1948. Both the Convention and the Declaration can be seen in historical context—post-World War II, Cold War, globalization, and decolonization. They continuously evolve in definition, scope, and critique.

It is easy to get lost in the statistics and definitions — more than 82 million displaced persons worldwide; disagreements over what defines refugee status or asylum; vetting processes; repatriation; statelessness; undocumented status; etc. Simplified, the reality is that millions of people are forcibly displaced and seeking refuge, most often within their own countries or states, but also in neighboring polities and across the world.

We likely have seen recent news stories about the mass exodus of people fleeing Ukraine following the Russian invasion. Likewise, we probably know that the last decade of civil war in Syria and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have displaced millions. Perhaps we learned about the Rohingya genocide or Uyghur imprisonment on social media. Maybe we read an article about civil unrest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or maybe we personally know refugees who escaped the 2009 coup d’etat in Honduras, or corruption and violence in Haiti.

We can support those working in humanitarian and relief organizations in both short and long-term ways. In my own life, I am grateful for my adoptive mother’s service in Southeast Asia — orphanages, leprosariums, public health, immunizations, and more, particularly with ethnic minority peoples displaced within Vietnam during many decades of war. Later, when we lived in the United States, my mother provided housing for a woman who had escaped the civil war in Liberia. We can look for opportunities to help.

What can we do this World Refugee Day, June 20, 2022? We can raise our awareness of the world refugee situation and learn more about world history and the conditions that create and contribute to the crises that cause people to flee. We can celebrate the stories, histories, cultures, languages, and lives of refugees. We can seek out refugee art, particularly pieces through which refugees tell their own stories, works that center refugees and their experiences through their own words and work. These creative expressions empower, educate, and heal.

I’ll never know the names of the pair I met in North Carolina, or whether they were seeking economic opportunities, or escaping civil and political unrest in Oaxaca or neighboring Chiapas, where conflict between the Mexican government and the Zapatistas was escalating during the mid-1990s. Even the briefest of encounters represent whole stories, whole histories, and whole lives.

A couple of years ago, I attended the Artisans for Hope project at the Boundary County Library. The project celebrates refugee stories through quilts and quilt making. Two of the artists — from Iraq and Afghanistan — presented their work, which was simultaneously sobering and celebratory, layered and suffused with meaning. Afterward, we sat in the Bonners Ferry city parking lot, exchanging stories. What I recall most from those interactions is a profound sense of reflection and dignity — in the artists’ works and in their beings and bearing. It is this dignity that we respect and honor and reflect upon during this World Refugee Day, June 20, 2022.

Paul Bonnell was born in Buôn Ma Thuột, Vietnam. He has lived in the Philippines, Malaysia, and North Carolina, and now lives with his family in Bonners Ferry, Idaho. He teaches and coaches at the Bonners Ferry High School and is an adjunct instructor for North Idaho College. He has interests in poetry, music, essays, fiction, hybrid art, the Vietnamese Diaspora, the Chăm, the Bru, the Rhadé/Êđê, mountain culture, climbing, biopolitics, and transracial/transnational adoption.

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