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Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee retires 'refugee' from its name

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Tom Weber, Daniel Wordsworth
Tom Weber, left, and Daniel Wordsworth, CEO of the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in March 2015 in Minneapolis. The organization will now be known as Alight to get away from the negative connotations that can come with the word, "refugee."
Courtesy of Nobel Peace Prize Forum 2015

On Thursday, people are marking World Refugee Day. The United Nations said last year a record-high 71 million people were forced to flee their homes. 

But the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee said it needs a new name to get away from the negative connotations that can come with the word, "refugee." 

The 40-year-old organization will now be known as Alight. MPR News spoke with the group's CEO, Daniel Wordsworth, to find out more about the decision. Below is an edited version of the interview.

How has your thinking about this word 'refugee' evolved?

Daniel Wordsworth: There's been an evolution within our team. But actually there's been a really surprising evolution within the broader community around that word. When we would talk 10 years ago, the most dominant feeling that was evoked was a feeling of compassion and mercy linked with a feeling of distance — my heart goes out to them and they live a long way away. They're in Africa somewhere. 

What's really changed over the last 10 years — and it's accelerated in the last three years — is that now when we bring up the word, "refugee," the feeling that's evoked is one of fear and closeness. People seem to have this strong sort of fear reaction to refugees and feeling as though there's like 40,000 of them just around the corner. 

Why are you changing your name to Alight? 

Wordsworth: There's one element of the word "alight" that means filled with light, and that is how we see refugees and the people we work with. 

But there's another part of it which is when you say, "a butterfly alights onto a flower." It's that idea of landing gently in a place and that's how we see refugees: not as terrible burdens that are marching toward us but instead as gentle human beings that are looking to land gently in our countries and to join with our communities to improve them.

What has your organization stopped doing or started doing in recent years?

Tarp distribution
Tarps being distributed to earthquake survivors by the American Refugee Committee.
Courtesy of Therese Gales

Wordsworth: We're not stopping the core of what we have been doing. We deliver health care. We run refugee camps. We deliver millions of gallons of water every day. We actually treat 1.5 million patients every year in our medical facilities. We work closely and intimately with people that are in extremely difficult circumstances — women and children experiencing violence. 

It's really about the kind of work we add on top of that that recognizes the refugee more concretely that makes ourselves more accountable to them. We now allow refugees to rate the services that we provide in the same way that you rate with Yelp a restaurant or rate your Uber ride. 

So, today when a refugee picks up clean water in the morning or visits one of our clinics, they actually rate us on an app and tell us how we're doing and we put that on a website. So, that's an example of something that we added to the kind of work we're doing.

What are the challenges and opportunities in going through a name change?

Wordsworth: I've got to say, I am feeling a little bit of anxiety right now. We were all excited about this and spent years on this, and now we're going back out into the world and renewing our promise. 

But there's risks about that — that people know who the American Refugee Committee is and know at the end of the year when we send out our mailers and say, 'We need your support,' and they see "Alight" and they think, 'Who is this organization?' But what I think overwhelms that is our feeling that as an organization, our first commitment is that we do this work with refugees. They are completely woven into how we see ourselves.