World Refugee Day 2023
reflections by Naina Raju, 14
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I believe this is certainly true of the above
photograph that was taken in Bangladesh of Rohingya refugees fleeing conflict and persecution, walking towards a refugee settlement area.
But what is a refugee? I wondered this when my 8 th grade homeroom teacher introduced a
young girl, just like me, who had recently come to the US from Ukraine; she and her family
had fled from the war there, I was told. I could not imagine the constant threat of active
warfare and having to flee from this with little to no notice, leaving everything behind,
carrying only the minimal clothing and possessions on your back and traveling for months
and sometimes even years with the hope of finding safety, but that is exactly what this
young girl had done!
According to the United Nations, every minute, 20 people leave everything behind to escape
war, persecution and terror. That is 1,200 an hour and 28,800 a day. And these are moms,
dads, brothers, sisters… all people, just like you and me, who have a basic human right to
seek safety, just like you and me.
These staggering numbers lead me to want to find out a bit more about refugees, the trauma
they endure leaving their homes, countries and even sometimes family members behind, the
resilience it takes to travel to safety and to start all over, rebuilding a new life in a
completely new, foreign country.
This is how I came across Refugee Assistance Partners (RAP), a local nonprofit, whose mission it is to help refugee newcomers who resettle in NJ learn English, go to school, find work and over time transition and assimilate into their new communities.
RAP customizes assistance based on the unique needs of each refugee newcomer family and
builds hope, resilience and a sense of community for them. Volunteers work with each refugee
family for an average of 9 months until they are fully resettled.
In these nine months, RAP provides:
English language and literacy tutoring for children and adults
GED and other academic support for those with an educational gap
supplies and services to ensure safe living spaces
laptops and dorm supplies for college-bound youth and teens
medical care access and advocacy
community-building events and activities
financial aid for the prevention of homelessness
utilities bill debt relief
food insecurity relief
In addition to these intensive services, RAP has also provided school supplies, food, coats, and
hygiene products to 3500 people who have been forcibly displaced from their home countries.
These are facts and figures that carry and communicate a great deal of significance, but they do
not tell the personal stories behind the numbers, and it is these stories that really made me the
hardships that refugee families go through and how organizations such as RAP help, come to
life for me. I hope the below two stories do the same for you:
This family was evacuated from Afghanistan so fast, they were forced to leave behind two
siblings. One is still separated from them in another country, and they miss him tremendously
and are vigorously trying to be reunited. Both their parents were doctors in Afghanistan, but
they are not licensed in the United States and cannot practice medicine--they now work as
technicians for lower wages but are making it work. The older sister goes to community college
and two brothers were selected for scholarship to a leadership summer camp. They are
tremendously resilient leaders in their community and have made many friends, both from
Afghanistan and Americans in their new high school.
The text below is quoted directly from a letter to RAP from this family:
"Leaving home for survival can be one of the most intense hardships on any human being in
life. You must be so desperate to leave behind your most loving people like your child, your
parents, siblings, your profession, and your properties. This will put an overwhelming pressure
on anyone fleeing his/her country for survival. Nothing other than kindness and love and
support can relieve the stress and the burden. We have been treated with kindness and respect
since we left our country and entered the United States. We have gained more and more hope
in life after meeting more and more Americans. When we came out of the camp, we had
several shoulder bags with minds full of uncertainty about school, job, house, furniture. Many
people came out to assist us to start a new life. Without receiving this support, life would have
not been easy for me and many people like me. I thank the great people of this great country."
Another family is from Congo. The 17-year-old sister and the 13-year-old brother were both
born in a refugee camp. They had never gone to school and lived in a shelter made of mud,
stone and canvas for their entire lives. Separated from their mother at a young age, the older
girl had no female role model in her life until coming to the United States, where a team of volunteers from RAP helped connect her with school and accompanied her to her
first class in high school. With no English and no previous education, being placed in the high
school was extremely difficult but federal law requires children to be enrolled in the grade that
is age-appropriate, regardless of English proficiency or academic background. Both teens get
immersive ESL in school. They love school now, where they are learning English and making
I wish to honor these families and many more just like them on World Refugee Day, an
international day designated by the United Nations to commemorate the strength, courage
and perseverance of millions of refugees. World Refugee Day falls on June 20th each year. It
was first celebrated on this day in 2001 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1951
Refugee convention, which established the internationally recognized definition of a refugee
and outlines the international legal protection, rights and assistance a refugee is entitled to
receive regardless of where they come from or where they reside. On this day, we celebrate
refugees' contributions and seek to build empathy and understanding for their plight and
their resilience to build a bright future.
Please join me and the other RAP volunteers by extending your welcoming hand to refugees in our area. Volunteer, donate or just spread the word in your community.