International Refugee Week: 'We Cannot Walk Alone'

We all have a responsibility to open up our societies, and our hearts, to those fleeing atrocities [Getty Images]
6 min read
18 June, 2021
Refugee Week commemorates the struggles and achievements of refugees across the world. Shining a fresh light on the consequences of conflict, it is our collective responsibility to do more to welcome those afflicted by war, writes Yasmin Al-Najar.

International Refugee Week amplifies the voices of refugees and empowers them to share their creative work and perspective on their terms, as well recognising what many world leaders fail to – that refugees are so much more than their stories of displacement. First founded in 1998, Refugee Week has become a growing global movement.

“Refugee Week celebrates the contributions of refugees in order to challenge negative stereotypes and create a space where refugees can be seen and heard beyond their experience of displacement,” reads the website. 

Scheduled from June 14 to June 20,  it celebrates the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees and people seeking sanctuary. Anyone can get involved by holding or joining an event or activity and activities typically involve arts, culture, food, sports and education as well as media and other creative campaigns.

The festivity brings communities together from all walks of life, celebrates differences and at the same time allows us to see our common humanity. It shows us a vision of how harmonious, rich and vibrant society can be.

The pandemic and the ignition of social justice movements have highlighted that we are all interconnected. 

Refugee week serves to be the antithesis of the UK Home Office who have consistently disregarded the human rights of people seeking safety enshrined in the UN Refugee Convention. These celebrations are a way of standing in solidarity with refugees and refuting the idea that refugees are a financial burden, which has been disproved by Science Advances analysis of 30 years of data.

The theme of Refugee Week 2021 is ‘We Cannot Walk Alone’. The pandemic and the ignition of social justice movements have highlighted that we are all interconnected. The pandemic has impacted the lives of ordinary people all over the world. Whether it affected finances, working spaces, health or relationships, we felt the strain of the pandemic.

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Our causes are one. From Indigenous peoples and other oppressed groups across the world standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter to combat centuries of state violence, to environmental activists standing with these groups to combat the intersection of environmental exploitation and racism – 2020 was our year of reckoning. Important conversations about inequalities across all sections of life are continuing this year. We cannot walk alone and that is why it is important to keep the conversation of how to be a constructive ally going and the fight for human rights alive. To achieve liberation and justice it must be achieved for all. As Dr Martin Luther King Jr said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

The police response to Sarah Everard’s vigil and the British Government’s attempt to pass laws that threaten our right to protest has shown us that the fight to decrease police powers and combating police brutality lies with all communities. We can see ourselves in others; our fears, our aspirations, our fight for justice, even in those we have not met.

Although it is important to recognise and value the amazing contributions refugees have brought to any country, we must also remember that they need not be exceptional to be afforded their human rights

My father is from Damascus and I know that my life would look very different had I been born in Syria. I have family there and family friends. They are experiencing food shortages, financially struggling, have lost their business, and Syrians have lost their homes and their families to the war.

In 2010 I met people in Syria who had hopes and dreams like me and who had no idea how their lives would completely transform beyond their control. I could have been a refugee pushed to desperation to leave everything I have ever known and embark on a dangerous journey in the hope that there is life beyond tragedy. Any one of us could be a refugee.

Refugees have enriched the lives of others and have made some incredible contributions. Ibrahim al-Hussein, a Paralympic swimmer who fled Syria in 2014 to settle in Greece, has caught the attention of the media far and wide. His father, who was a swimming coach, sparked his love for swimming at the age of five. In 2012 he lost his right leg while attempting to help a friend who had been injured during a bomb explosion. He told the International Paralympic Committee  “I was a little bit depressed and sad about losing my leg, but my friend survived and now has three children. He is happy right now and I can live because of that."

He returned to the sport to help with his depression, to aid the rebuilding of his life and to rekindle his love with swimming. Ibrahim received the 2016 Mildred "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias Courage Award from the United States Sports Academy. His act of bravery and selflessness is truly admirable and he shows incredible determination and hope despite extreme hardship and loss.

Razan Alsous is also a Syrian refugee who came to the UK with her husband and three young children in 2013. She lost almost everything and was desperate to give her children a bright future. While grocery shopping Razan noticed that Yorkshire had great quality milk but a fresh and flavoursome Halloumi cheese was missing from the supermarkets or local independent farm shops. With a start-up loan of just £2,500 from the Local Enterprise Agency, Razan began her journey to set up her own business called Dama Cheese.

Her fresh locally made cheese has won 17 food awards and Princess Anne even made an appearance to celebrate the opening of the business’ new factory in 2017. Through her business, Razan has shared her heritage and culture and her story and Britons have come to love the cheese she loves too. Razan told UNHCR, “I count this as my home, so now when people ask me where are you from I say I’m from Yorkshire.”

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Their stories give us inspiration and hope. Refugees aspire to fulfil their potential. After all, isn’t this what we all want? We can see a part of ourselves in people like Ibrahim and Razan even if they don’t look like us or speak the same language.

Although it is important to recognise and value the amazing contributions refugees have brought to any country, we must also remember that they need not be exceptional to be afforded their human rights. Under international law seeking asylum is a fundamental human right. Everyone has the right to life and liberty, the right to freedom from fear and the right to seek asylum from persecution.

Let’s embrace others not only this week but every day.

Yasmin is a freelance journalist covering a variety of different subjects including human rights, law, culture, social issues and social justice. 

Follow her on Twitter: @YasminAlnajar97