by Jennifer Cook
Houston, Texas, is home to roughly 78,000 refugees from 78 countries―more than any other city in the United States. It was the perfect place to celebrate World Refugee Day on June 21. The colorful crowd that gathered at the Raindrop Foundation Turkish House was treated to cultural performances, exotic foods, and a grand celebration of diversity.
Two of our Houston Fellows, Elizabeth Frost and Kemly Phillip, of the University of Texas Health Medical School/Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and University of Houston – Graduate College of Social Work/University of Texas School of Public Health, volunteered at the event. Frost and Phillip have partnered with the Alliance for Multicultural Community Services to employ a medical, public health, and social work approach to empower refugee women and adolescent girls in fostering their integration into the community at large.
While the emphasis at the celebration was on celebrating the rich cultural atmosphere the refugee community has created in Houston, the event also paid tribute to the adversity these new citizens overcame to rebuild their lives here. Among the educational exhibits was the interactive Refugee Experience, which gave participants a glimpse into the harrowing journey many refugees undertake in order to escape persecution in their native countries and obtain asylum in the United States.
Guides grouped us into small groups of six to eight people. First we had to choose who, out of our family group, was going to cross the border first. It then became that person’s responsibility to come back for the rest of us. We were given some supplies, but had to decide which of them was most important because we couldn’t carry all of them on our journey over land.
The second stage of the exhibit was the border crossing to escape our native country. It was lined with mines and other dangers. One of our group members was “severely injured” in our simulated crossing.
During the third stage we were offered some relief by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an organization that safeguards the rights and well-being of refugees. But they told us we could only stay in their camp for a week. Where to next?
The fourth stage of the exhibit was the border crossing into the country where we were seeking asylum. We had to bribe guards, and two members of our group were held at gunpoint.
The final stage of the exhibit was educational, explaining the conditions of most refugee camps and the rations that a typical family would receive. Though it was only a simulated experience and thus lacked the real hardships, danger, and stress that refugees and asylum seekers endure, it was a very thought-provoking exhibit. I have had experiences in refugee camps in West and North Africa that were overwhelming and very humbling. I believe it’s important to bring awareness to the conditions of the camps in order to ensure that human rights respected.
It was also nice to see many social services organizations hosting booths to educate the refugee community about the services they offer to help refugees get settled in their adopted country. For example, METRO, Houston’s transportation system, had a bus on site where representatives explained how to get a METRO card, read the schedules, and how to get on the bus and pay. They also had informational fliers with the information in multiple languages. Accessing public transportation is a key step toward self-sufficiency for many refugees, so it was helpful for METRO to acknowledge how difficult it can be for newcomers to navigate the system.
Like the festival itself, it was just another great example of how Houston has rolled out the welcome mat for refugees and asylees from around the globe.
Jennifer Cook is the Program Director of The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship at Houston-Galveston.