The Refugees Among Us

Fleeing persecution and conflict, often with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, millions of refugees around the world today are separated from all that is familiar, from family, friends, work, community and culture. Faced with an uncertain future in a strange land, their sense of loss and alienation can be overwhelming.

Yet, despite losing just about everything, refugees never lose hope of rebuilding their lives. The fact that they maintain that hope against all odds should be an inspiration to all of us. That's why we at the UN refugee agency have selected hope as the theme for this year's World Refugee Day on June 20.

In more than 100 countries around the world, staff of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees are working to protect, assist and find lasting solutions for nearly 21 million refugees and others of concern. For UNHCR and its partners, there is no more important work than supporting refugees in their courageous struggle to pick up the pieces of their lives and start anew. Over the past 55 years, we have helped more than 50 million people do just that.

The vast majority of them returned to their own, often devastated, homelands. Refugees desperately want to go back home, a sentiment we have seen dramatically played out in places as diverse as Afghanistan and Angola, Kosovo, Sudan and Liberia. Over the past four years, UNHCR has helped more than 6 million refugees go home, contributing to a 31 percent decline in global refugee numbers since 2001.

But what about those who can never go home? What hope do they have for a better future?

For them, we seek one of two solutions: integration in countries of first asylum or, if that is not possible, resettlement to a third country. In both situations, the ultimate aim is to enable refugees to resume their lives, albeit in a new country. This requires real generosity and burden-sharing by asylum countries, often poor themselves, and by the relatively small number of predominantly developed nations that accept the bulk of resettled refugees.

In 2005, nearly 81,000 refugees were resettled in 16 main resettlement countries. Top among them was the United States, which took in more than 54,800 resettled refugees. Like generations before them, these newcomers to America come from every corner of the globe. And they, too, are helping to transform communities across the nation.

One of those communities is Utica, New York, a once-crumbling industrial town that over the past three decades has generously welcomed more than 10,000 refugees from nearly 30 countries. Today, nearly one in six residents of the town of 65,000 is a refugee.

They come from vastly different backgrounds. Synath Buth and his wife survived Cambodia's 'killing fields.' Pavel Brutsky suffered years of religious persecution in the former Soviet Union. Loi Hoang was a boat person from Viet Nam. Hassan Murithi escaped the failed state of Somalia.

City officials, residents, industry leaders and the refugees themselves agree that the arrival of this polyglot community has been key in turning Utica's fortunes around. Today, the town boasts a vibrant mix of Vietnamese restaurants, Russian neighborhood stores, Bosnian hairdressing salons and coffee shops, a large Pentecostal church built by refugees from the former Soviet Union, mosques and temples. Local businesses employing refugees are thriving. Thirty-one languages are spoken in city schools. The local newspaper runs a weekly column in Bosnian. A hospital has a website devoted to cultural diversity.

It is a remarkable story, but the legacy of Utica stretches to wherever there are refugees full of hope for a better future, and communities prepared to welcome them. On this World Refugee Day, let us honor the courage and perseverance of uprooted people around the world and recognize the contributions they can make to our own lives and communities.