"The United Nations General Assembly designated June 20, 2000 as World Refugee Day to recognize and celebrate the contribution of refugees throughout the world. Since then, World Refugee Day has become an annual commemoration marked by a variety of events in over a hundred countries. This year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will commemorate World Refugee Day for the sixth time with the inspirational theme: “Hope,” in order to draw the public’s attention to the millions of refugees world-wide who are forced to flee their homes."
"According to international refugee law, a refugee is someone who seeks refuge in a foreign country because of war and violence, or out of fear of persecution "on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group" (to use the terminology from U.S. law)."
- From Wikipedia: Refugee
To celebrate World Refugee Day, I had lunch with 12 refugee teenagers from Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and Kurdistan. In honor of their refugee status and their long plight from fear, famine, war and persecution, we went to that bastion of Americanism: McDonald’s.
These teenagers were more interested in their fried foods than in why we were treating them to lunch, but it was memorable for me to look down the row of tables and see people happily snacking on their burgers and nuggets, seemingly unconcerned about the reasons that had led them to seek asylum.
Some don’t remember leaving, having been in the United States for almost 18 years. Many are American citizens or permanent residents and plan to call Nashville home for the rest of their lives. A few remember fleeing amid duress, some have seen relatives murdered, but all are happy to be alive and able to munch on the dangerous delicacies of the Golden Arches.
World Refugee Day comes one day after Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when the last American slaves found out they were free. To commemorate yesterday, we all met at the Bicentennial Mall, at the place where the history wall is rent in two, like the nation was so long ago. As I began to explain the civil war and why it was fought and why slavery was bad and why Juneteenth is an important day in history, it dawned on me that these refugees could probably teach me a thing or seven about the very same topics.
Most of them had heard of the American civil war in a history class. They knew the terms ‘North’ and ‘South’ and that there used to be slaves in America. But in terms of truly understanding the concept of a ‘civil war,’ these students knew it more deeply than I, given that each of their countries had undergone one, and most of these students’ families fled for that very reason.
Sudan only recently ended a north/south civil war (which had an effect on beginning the genocide in Darfur).
Somalia has seen its share of secession attempts and could face a civil war of its own now that Islamic militias have gained control of Mogadishu.
Kurdistan is no longer an independent nation, but dreams of unification.
Reading over the atrocities committed (and still being committed) in these countries makes the one on American soil seem ridiculous. And, hearing someone saying that “The South will rise again,” only confirms their ignorance. Trying to glorify this ugly stain is futile (I don't care how much you love Robert E. Lee and state's rights, I'll never support your cause).
The American Civil War was bad. Lots of people died. Families fought against one another. Farms were burned. A growing nation nearly had to start over. I’m no expert on this war, but as a pacifist, an abolitionist, and an equality-loving, bigotry-hating kind of guy, it seemed necessary to rid this country of a horrible practice. I would love to see the South rise – not ‘again,’ but in terms of quality of life, educational outcomes, and acceptance of others.
Which is why I find it interesting that my teenage refugee friends call Nashville home. Granted, most of them were placed here after arriving in the United States in order to breath deeply the air of freedom. But now, they call a state 'home' that ceased being a state because it wanted to continue owning other human beings.
But for every stain on the fabric of humanity, I have hope that it can be washed clean, not so that we can deny its existence, but so that we can treat the blemish should it rear itself again. Because the United States in general and Tennessee in particular fought a bloody and terrible civil war, it can open its arms to embrace those running from one.
Celebrate world refugee day by donating to one of these great organizations helping refugees at home and abroad. And read up on some of the Wikipedia articles above. And, if you have the chance, take a few to McDonald’s.