Reuters/Zohra Bensemra, courtesy www.alertnet.org
The theme of this year’s World Refugee Day is “home.” Home refers to the many homes lost, destroyed, but also, hopefully, those returned to by the millions of refugees around the world who have been forced to flee due to conflict and human rights abuse. There are few things as violating as being torn or forced from one’s home, one’s corner of the world, one’s community and one’s personal possessions. Home defines us. It grounds us. It gives us a sense of place and is essential to our relationships with family, neighbors and community. It is where we feel safe. It is where we feel part of something bigger than ourselves. Our relationship with “home” is both communal and spatial and, many would say, even spiritual.
While displaced, most refugees long for home—the routine, the safety, the communal networks and the physical space that they provide. But because the majority of refugees are displaced, on average, for seventeen years, going home even after conflicts end can be highly problematic. They often have little to go home to and even less to go home with. If we as the humanitarian community could ensure that during those many years of displacement they learn marketable skills, such as how to run a small business, construction, masonry and agricultural practices to earn an income, going home would no doubt be much less difficult. Refugees wouldn’t be sent home empty handed, but rather with cash in their pockets and skills in their hands—the very tools they need to restart their lives and rebuild their communities.
Host governments have often argued that if refugees are allowed to work, they’ll want to stay in their countries of refuge. The evidence, however, seems to dispute this. When peace and stability reached South Sudan, the first refugees to return from the camps in Kenya were the most highly skilled. They knew that they could find jobs and restart their businesses at home. In Ghana, on the other hand, the lingering groups of Liberian refugees who have refused to go home are those with the fewest skills, without resources and no means of making a living. They say that they don’t know how they’ll begin their lives anew.
We all know that the lure and desire for home is strong. When it is safe and refugees have the resources to start their lives over, they will go. When we have helped equip them with the skills they need, they will restart their businesses, and rebuild their lives and their communities—creating a home once again. For truly, there is no place like home.
(Photo courtesy of Reuters, Zohra Bensemra)