Yesterday, on the north side of Chicago, dozens of children were playing soccer. This may not be particularly exciting, except when you consider who the players are — refugee children from across the globe, many of whom haven’t been able to run and play for years. They come from refugee camps and war torn countries, forced to see desperation, hunger, and illness as their way of life. But on World Refugee Day, they are getting a chance to reclaim their childhoods and start life anew.
One of these children is Bishnu, a Bhutanese refugee whose family was forced to flee Bhutan, where they were persecuted because of their Nepali origins. They attempted to flee back to Nepal, but were denied. Instead, the family languished in an overcrowded refugee camp for almost 20 years. It was there that Bishnu was born. In the camp, his family went hungry and became sick from the lack of sanitation. There was no schooling for Bishnu and his sisters, and no end in sight to their suffering.
Fortunately, Bishnu and his family were able to escape their desperate situation. They were selected for the United States refugee resettlement program. Through it, refugees from around the world are resettled to begin new lives in welcoming countries. When Bishnu’s family arrived in the United States, they were greeted by Heartland Alliance, the leading anti-poverty organization in the Midwest, where I work. We connected his family with our refugee services team, helping them adjust to the new culture here, prepare for and gain employment, learn English, and get Bishnu and his sisters back into school.
For World Refugee Day, Bishnu, like hundreds of other refugee children, are preparing for a new annual tradition — a refugee soccer tournament. Children team up with other refugees from their homelands and play against each other. The games give them something familiar in their lives as Heartland Alliance and our partners help them acclimate and resettle in their new homeland at a time when everything around them is unfamiliar. Just a few short years ago, Bishnu battled for his life. Today, he battles a team of giddy children, running and playing, free and safe — quite a change for a child that once knew only fear and danger.
Right now there are nearly 44 million refugees like Bishnu’s family across the world. Eighty percentof them are women and children. They are survivors — families who have fought their way out of unimaginable conflict, determined to survive, even if it means leaving everything they know and love behind. They come with complex needs — housing, legal protection, help adjusting to American life, and a need for language and job training. But their survival instincts serve them well, and, for me, it’s one of the most rewarding moments of working at Heartland Alliance — when you see the anxious, fearful expression of someone who has known only conflict turn into a hopeful smile when they realize that it’s in the past. That the future can be better. That their children can live in safety and become educated and healthy.
On World Refugee Day, please join me in taking a moment to remember how much we have to be grateful for. Simple things like the assurance that there is water and food available to us, that we have sewage and sanitation systems that prevent us from the constant threat of dysentery, that we won’t have to leave everything we know behind on a hope and a prayer that, if we do, our family may survive. These are things that 44 million people can’t count on — that Bishnu’s family couldn’t count on. I’m proud to say that Heartland Alliance is helping change this — that I have a role in helping families build a better life. Today, on World Refugee Day, please join me. Volunteer, donate, get involved — millions of families depend on it.