Imagine for a moment that you and your family are on the run. You have left behind the only home you’ve ever known, the home in which you and your sister were born. You have left extended family, friends, and the dog you raised from a puppy. The “rebel” army has set up an encampment in your village, the distant war is literally at your doorstep, and so you must leave, now.
Through the night you escape with what little you can carry. Yet, as your march stretches from hours into days, you and the thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions even, of people migrating alongside you, begin to discard what you can no longer carry. You start with the heaviest items: furniture, ceramics, and books, but as the days spill into weeks (in the heat of the sun or the frigid temperatures as night), you discard more and more: family heirlooms, jewelry, and excess clothing. The roadside ditches become the insensitive holders of the entire history of a people, pillaged by those that come along after you have gone. Despite all of this, you are among the lucky ones. In the grip of overwhelming anguish, loss, and fear, you have made it to the border. Your father has somehow saved enough money to bribe the guards (on both sides). You’ve made it to the “temporary” camp and found shelter. Someone has provided you with food and water. You’ve maintained your existence, but your life is lost. Back home you were a star football player, you were top in your class in mathematics, and you had a vast network of family and friends. Here, you have a home (a tent that leaks), heating (an improperly vented stove), and food (though never enough). What you don’t have is a clear path to a life beyond your tarpaulin walls. What you don’t have is access to an education.
This is the story of the fortunate few. This is the story of 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide.
That’s more than the population of the United Kingdom or the states of California and Texas combined. And, this astronomic number is growing at a rate of roughly one person every two seconds (or two people in the time it took you to read this sentence). Of these 68.5 million people, roughly 40 percent, or 25.4 million, are classified as refugees. A refugee is defined by the UNHCR as someone that has been forcibly displaced from their home country due to the actual or perceived threat of persecution, war, or violence. Most of the remaining 43 million forcibly displaced individuals are classified as “internally displaced.” These are people that have similarly had to leave their homes, but have not crossed a border. Adding to the severity of their situation, internally displaced people are not eligible for the same level of international aid and are not covered by international law as they are considered still under the protection of their country.
Lebanon currently has the most refugees per capita of any country in the world. With an official population of only 6 million people, Palestinians and, more recently, Syrians make up the vast majority of the additional 1.5 million refugees. Most of these refugees live in temporary tents in the Beka’a Valley and along the borders with Syria and Israel or in decrepit buildings on the outskirts of Beirut, Tripoli, Sidon, and Tyre. A similarly unfathomable crisis is currently happening in Bangladesh with the Rohingya, where roughly 700,000 refugees have crossed the border from Myanmar. Due to financial instability and rising sea-levels, this highly impoverished country is already struggling with a large number of internally displaced individuals. However severe these two crises are, they are just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to Syria and Myanmar, a vast majority of the world’s refugees come from Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Somalia. Like Lebanon and Bangladesh, the governments of Turkey, Pakistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Ethiopia are currently taking in and hosting a disproportionate percentage of these individuals. No matter where they come from and where they end up, all refugees face the incredibly difficult process of reestablishing their lives in a country outside their own, in conditions that are often not conducive to human survival let alone prosperity.
Just because they have escaped tragedy in their countries of origin does not mean that refugees find stability in their host-countries. Many find themselves in temporary housing that is inadequate at best, not knowing if or when they will be able to return to their old lives. Thinking that they would only be gone a year, many Palestinians brought with them the keys to homes they left behind. Now, sixty years later, these keys (and the Lebanese government’s restrictions on refugee housing, employment, and citizenship) act as relics that only work to continually unlock the overwhelming realization of loss and suffering.
However they are classified or defined, it is important to remember that a refugee is a person who has gone through something incredibly tragic and all-to-often finds themselves in a situation where they feel as though they no longer control their future. Every Shelter exists to help relieve this struggle and provide these individuals with the housing dignity they deserve.
Written by Gabriel Perkins for Every Shelter – 08.20.2018 – Gabriel Perkins earned his B.S. in Environmental Science and a B.A. in English from the University of New Hampshire and his M.A. in Teaching from Relay Graduate School of Education in New York. He is currently based in Beirut, Lebanon, where he works as a middle school English teacher and freelance writer and volunteers for a local NGO whose mission is to provide educational opportunities for Syrian and Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon.