Ahead of World Refugee Day, marked annually on 20 June, UN Secretary-General António Guterres on Saturday visited refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan now living, working and adding to the vibrancy of New York City.  

“Like millions of refugees worldwide, they are helping bring new life, prosperity and rich diversity to their host communities. We must continue supporting them,” the UN chief said on Twitter following the visit.

Mr Guterres, who was the UN High Commissioner for Refugees from 2005 to 2015, stressed the vital role of developed nations in receiving refugees and providing them with opportunities, whoever they are and wherever they come from.

Living ‘in limbo’

Mr Guterres’ first stop was in Brooklyn, where he visited Suzan Al Shammari, an Iraqi refugee who in 2010 fled with her family from Baghdad to Cairo, Egypt.

Registered with the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, they were later able to resettle in California and from there, with further assistance, they made their way to New York.

Ms Al Shammari told the Secretary-General that having grown up in war, she wants to be able to support other refugees. In that spirit, she is currently a caseworker with a non-governmental organization (NGO) – having recently graduated with a university master’s degree.

“Every day you think it is going to be the last. And it is not just one of those things… it literally could be your last. When I went to Egypt with my family it was also hard being there as a refugee in limbo. So, moving to the US, as big a blessing as it was, it took me some years to adjust that ‘I am not going to die tomorrow,” Ms Al Shammari said.

Second chance

Resettling provides the opportunity of a “second chance” for those forced to flee, said Ms Al Shammari.

“Bringing refugees in is a life-saving measure and it is something that each leader, each country, should contribute to and be accountable for,” she said.

Having been afforded the opportunity of a good education, a safe new home and fluency in her host country’s language, the Iraqi refugee acknowledged that she was “one of the lucky ones”.

“I can tell from my personal experience… it is not easy to come to a country you don’t know, to a language you don’t speak. Both my parents were engineers back in Iraq and [now] they cannot work with their degrees,” Ms Al Shammari explained.

She believed that it would help “if businesses took more initiative, hired refugees, and created more opportunities for immigrants”.

“You see, some will hear their accent, hear they don’t speak good English, and say, ‘I don’t think this is going to work out”.

Displaced in Iraq

According to the latest UN data, currently some 1.2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq from among more than six million initially displaced by violence involving the ISIL terror network from 2014 to 2017.

Meanwhile, Iraq has been hosting more than 290,000 refugees from Syria and other countries – mostly in the Kurdistan region, which in early 2020, housed 25 of the country’s 26 camps.

Settled in the US

Mr Guterres then headed to Queens to visit an Afghan refugee couple, Shafi Alif and Rohina Sofizada, who welcomed him with spiced green tea and traditional Afghan treats.

Chatting over their cups, Mr Alif revealed that in 1992 when he was five months old, his family walked for 40 days to seek asylum in Pakistan – where they remained for over 10 years.

They registered with UNHCR, which later helped them voluntarily return to Afghanistan in 2002. The UN agency provided financial support as they settled back in Kabul, including transportation and a cash stipend.

The couple agreed that they had “peaceful years” in the country until 2018.

Working with the US Embassy in Kabul, Ms Sofizada received a special visa to resettle in the US and Mr Alif, who worked with the Polish Army in the Afghan capital, joined her later, on a special immigrant visa.

Appeal to open borders

After hearing these compelling stories, Mr Guterres appealed to developed nations to do more.

He reminded them of their role in welcoming and giving refugees the chance to safely start over, away from degrading camps or poor housing conditions.

The Secretary-General recalled that when he headed UNHCR, there were twice as many resettlement opportunities available for refugees and urged more States to open their borders to asylum seekers.

Fleeing for safety

In 2021, 86 per cent of all resettlement cases submitted by UNHCR were for survivors of torture or violence and people with legal and physical protection needs.

Most were vulnerable women and girls and just over half concerned children.

According to the UN, the world reached a dramatic milestone in May, 10 weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine.

“Together with the women, children, and men fleeing conflict elsewhere in the world, the total number of forcibly displaced people has reached 100 million – a grim indictment of our times,” the UN chief said in his message commemorating World Refugee Day.

“The global refugee population is at a record high,” he continued, noting that the Ukraine war has triggered “the largest and fastest displacement in Europe since World War II”.

Shared responsibility

But safety is just the first step. When resettled, refugees must be given opportunities to heal, learn, work, thrive, return home if they choose, or rebuild their lives elsewhere, in safety and dignity, Mr Guterres said.

“Across the world, refugees have brought new life, prosperity, and rich cultural diversity to their host communities” and their protection is “a responsibility we all share”.

He encouraged everyone to pledge to do more for both refugees and the countries that host them.

“Let us stand together in solidarity… defend the integrity of the international protection regime..and let us never lose sight of our common humanity,” concluded the Secretary-General.