WASHINGTON - Ekhlas Ahmed is a high school teacher in Portland, Maine, coping with the new reality of virtual classrooms. She is also a former Sudanese refugee and is one of many people working on the frontlines in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 28-year-old has been shopping for groceries for her neighbors, hosting monthly calls to communicate critical information about the pandemic to community members, and offering a space for others to share their pandemic experiences.
“I dedicated my life to being a community organizer. I do whatever it takes to make my community better,” Ahmed said, “We have a monthly conference call for people who are dealing with mental health or just want to talk.”
Ahmed also observes World Refugee Day, calling it a “humbling day.”
“It takes me back and I'm sure it takes many individuals back to how far they have come. … If we want to define the word resilience, we should look more into the refugee stories,” Ahmed said.
Refugee advocates and activists are in fact hoping for a “unique” day of observances on World Refugee Day. Between virtual concerts, online panels, film festivals, and cooking shows, observances will move forward on June 20.
This year’s theme, “Every Action Counts”, highlights the contributions of refugees and asylum seekers as essential workers, leaders and neighbors during the pandemic.
Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams, head of global communications for the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said many refugees have become an essential part of the fight against COVID-19.
“We have lots of cases of refugees who are doing their part, either as essential workers, cleaning hospitals, providing support and care to vulnerable people like elderly or immunodeficient people or taking them their groceries, taking them their meals, checking in on them regularly,” Ghedini-Williams told VOA.
Ahmed said World Refugee Day is also a wake-up call to remember those who have been left behind.
“It's a day of celebration. It’s a day of reflection. And it's a day to remember that there's always a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.
The U.N. refugee agency reports nearly 71 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced — a record.
World Refugee Day has been observed since 2001 by a resolution of the U.N. General Assembly that affirms solidarity with those displaced from their homes by persecution, famine or war.
Ahmed still remembers the day her family left Darfur, Sudan, but it was not until she became older that she understood why they left in “such a rush.”
The year was 2003 and a war erupted between the Sudanese government and rebel groups. Hundreds of thousands of people died, villages were burnt, and the response by the government--to deploy its national armed forces and mobilize local militia-- created unprecedented levels of violence.
At the time, Ahmed was in fifth grade. She enjoyed school, friends and spending time with her siblings. The violence in Sudan had not touched her immediate family until one day when her parents said the family had to leave. They sold everything and went to Cairo, Egypt.
“We didn't experience the war itself, but we have lost more than half of our family members, due to this genocide in Darfur,” she said.
Her family rented a small place and the family applied for refugee status. For about three years, Ahmed said they lived in limbo not knowing where they would end up.
“You know, it was three years … and it was kind of a very lonely time,” she told VOA.
Then her family got the call.
“It was really early in the morning. ... And my mom answered the phone, but she was very quiet like she didn't say anything. … This one was the final call when they said, ‘you are going to the United States,’ and my brothers just left the house running around the neighborhood from such excitement,” she said.
More than a decade after Ahmed and her family moved to the U.S., her father started a company in Maine, her brothers have jobs that are helping the community, and she returned to her high school to teach English as a second language.
US refugee program
According to the U.S. Department of State, the United States is expected to resettle 18,000 refugees in fiscal year 2020 as well as process more than 350,000 individuals in new asylum claims.
But in fiscal year 2019, the country accepted 30,000 refugees. More than half of refugees from Oct. 1, 2018 to Sept. 30, 2019 came from African nations, with the Democratic Republic of Congo accounting for nearly 13,000 of those admitted.
In March, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) suspended refugee resettlement flight departures as a result of concerns related to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis--a temporary measure expected to stay in place only for as long as it remains essential.
Christopher Boian, a UNHCR spokesperson, said the U.S. has had for a long time a robust refugee program, which includes refugees and asylum seekers.
“It's undergoing some changes these days and we're all aware of those, but in general, the United States is very important in the ability of my organization, UNHCR, to do the work that we do in refugee situations really around the world,” Boian said.
But Boian said governments around the world need to do more.
“We're constantly advocating for governments and for all people really to be aware of this situation,” he said. “To look it in the eye and to step up responses, and to find responses that are adequate to the challenge at hand today.”