Why we need World Refugee Day more than ever

It’s no secret that I’m deeply invested in refugee issues. I’ve written about the refugees who have inspired me, including the Iraqi boyfriend who inspired me to a career in support of Arab refugees, am about to reprint for a second time the story of my work with Iraqis who are likely now displaced people, and after twenty years of preparation, last year I finally started to find paid work supporting refugee resettlement.

There have never been more forcibly displaced people, including record numbers of refugees, in the 70 years that the United Nations has been keeping count. Every minute of every day, 25 people are fleeing their homes, in fear for their lives, their safety, or the lives and safety of their families, and today 70.8 million children, women and men are displaced, in limbo, waiting, struggling, wondering if they will ever have a home again.

Who are these refugees? HIAS, the oldest refugee resettlement agency in the United States, has a great video and explainer on their blog, and yesterday NPR’s Eyder Peralta provided some great explanation of how the needs and traumas of refugees have changed from what they were even twenty years ago when I got into this issue.

And if you think that the United States is on the front lines of this fight … we’re not even in the top ten, according to this week’s UNHCR report:

By many measures, actually, we’re one of the worst, and getting worse under Trump.

This isn’t just a bad moral position for us as a nation. There are lots of practical economic reasons why helping refugees and asylum seekers settle in our country is a win for everyone. Contrary to popular opinion, refugees are not stealing jobs from Americans, and they contribute far more to the economy than they receive in federal support and benefits.

New U.S. Citizens take the oath of allegiance during a naturalization ceremony at the Martin Luther King Junior Center, in Atlanta, Georgia, November 14, 2013. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

While immigrants and refugees make up only 13% of the U.S. population, they represent over 30% of the country’s entrepreneurs, including 51 percent of the country’s startup companies worth $1 billion or more and employing an average of 760 people. Even their small businesses win awards. In fact, refugees are even more likely than immigrants to start their own small businesses, and immigrants and refugees without university education are the most likely to do so. They keep Main Street humming, and it’s why companies like Square have made a commitment to support refugee entrepreneurs.

For those who don’t pursue entrepreneurship, refugees and immigrants are also extremely hard workers, and they both inspire American workers to work harder, and push up wages. Through his Tent Partnership, Chobani yogurt company founder and Turkish Kurdish immigrant Hamdi Ulukaya is leading an effort of 130 corporations including Starbucks and AirBnB who have made a business-smart commitment to investing in solutions to the global refugee crisis, from temporarily housing refugees to hiring them as loyal, hardworking employees.

“We tell them that when you hire refugees, they’re going to be the most loyal, they’re going to work harder, because they’ve gone through so much trouble. Within a few years, all the investment you make as a company or as a society will bring back more innovation, activity and culture to your company. You will be a better company.”👏

Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder and CEO of Chobani

And when we don’t bring those refugees here, they take their entrepreneurial spirit wherever they find themselves instead.

So what can you do? Reach out to Congress and urge them to support more expansive refugee resettlement and immigration reform. Volunteer with or donate to the International Rescue Committee, HIAS, or any of the 7 other organizations resettling and advocating for refugees in the United States; you can also donate directly to the United Nations Higher Council for Refugees.

But the most important thing you can do is be a voice for refugees and against bigotry. When you hear people spreading myths about refugees, speak up. When you hear people spouting racist and Islamophobic tropes about refugees, speak up. When people are afraid of refugees, remind them that refugees in the United States are the most stringently vetted people who enter this country.

And remember the words of the refugee poet Warsan Shire:

no one chooses refugee camps
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying — 
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

Home, by Warsan Shire

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