The reasons for World Refugee Day

Away from home
Young refugees on the Afghan border area of Pakistan.
American Refugee Committee

Ask the question "What is a refugee?" and there are a multitude of answers.

The word conjures up images of masses of people in refugee camps, but Amano Dube points out that all those people came from somewhere else -- each has a unique story, and set of skills.

West african drumming will also be featured at the World Refugee celebration in Minneapolis.
MPR photo/Roseanne Pereira

Dube says that while some refugees never had the opportunity to receive an education, others are well-educated, were doctors, journalists, or teachers in their home countries.

"A lot of professionals are out there who drive taxi cabs here in the United States and who do preliminary level jobs, just to make a living," he says.

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Dube is the Self Sufficiency Program Coordinator at Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis. He was once an asylum seeker himself, fleeing Ethiopia because of political persecution.

Dube has to work to convince employers to hire people who come in as refugees, and to see them as individuals. He sees the day's events as another opportunity to spread the word to all Minnesotans.

World Refugee Day in the Twin Cities is a day of celebration -- with dancers from Laos, food vendors from Ghana, and singers from Ethiopia. But, it's also a day of raising awareness, to clear up confusion about terms such as refugee and asylum seeker.

"About 95 percent of [refugees] have just one desire, and that's to go home, not to go to some third country like the United States."

Emily Good is a staff attorney in the refugee and immigration program at Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights.

She says refugee determination is made outside the U.S. But, if you haven't already been identified as a refugee by the time you reach the U.S., you are an asylum seeker. Other than that, people's reasons for coming the U.S. are similar.

"Both asylees and refugees come out of the same definition," Good says. "It's a person who is outside their country of origin, and is seeking refuge because they've been persecuted and their government can't protect them."

Gaining asylum in the United States hinges on proving justified fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

Good says because of Minnesota's strong resettlement history, the state is currently only resettling refugees who already have family members in the area. That's why Somalis and Ethiopians top the list of the Minnesota's recent refugee arrivals.

Good also points out something else that sets refugees apart from other types of immigrants.

"Almost never is an asylee motivated by economic reasons. What I hear more often from people is it's about freedom," Good says.

A balophone will be part of the celebration of World Refugee Day in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Roseanne Pereira

American Refugee Committee President Hugh Parmer travels around the world working on relief issues. He sees another part of the refugee definition.

"The first thing I think everybody needs to understand is about 95 percent of them have just one desire, and that's to go home, not to go to some third country like the United States," Parmer says.

But they're often not able to go home because of the conflict that drove them away in the first place. And so they start a new life in a new country.

For Parmer, World Refugee Day is a way for Minnesotans to connect with the rest of the world.

"People should care about World Refugee Day because it's an opportunity to learn about the plight of 37 million people who've been driven out of their homes, often with nothing but the clothes on their back, and are having to survive," Parmer says. "I think that the American people are a humane and kind and decent people, who when they recognize that there are people with these kinds of problems, generally are stimulated to want to do something about it."

For Parmer, that means becoming informed about refugee situations around the world.

But it could also mean getting to know people in the community who are refugees or attending World Refugee Day cultural events.