World Refugee Day, held each year on June 20th, honors the resilience, courage and determination of more than 50 million refugees forced to flee their homeland under the threat of persecution and violence.
Countless data shed light on the physical and psychological hardships of being a "stateless person."
By spreading stories of hope and inspiration, this annual global observation gives the citizens of the world insight into the plight of those displaced, either individually or as part of a mass evacuation.
In honor of this occasion, and as a former refugee, I want to bring to light the unexpected side of being a displaced person: the lessons learned, the joys experienced, and the incredible perseverance exhibited.
Born to Palestinian parents, I am a third-generation refugee. My grandparents were displaced from Palestine in 1948.
Raised in a refugee camp, Bourj el-Barajneh in Lebanon (my host country of birth), our family experienced firsthand the humiliation and injustice of "displacement."
While the rest of the world took for granted their basic human right to water, sanitation, electricity, and food, our camp endured a life of hardship. We accepted limited access to education, employment and medical assistance. We endured overcrowded narrow alleyways and poorly built homes with holes in the walls.
Although my father is an educated man with a degree in filmmaking, he had no choice but to work under the table as a taxi driver as the law in Lebanon prohibits refugees from working. One thing a refugee must master is survival during harsh and unfair times.
My maternal grandmother was bedridden as a result of being shot in the knee while lining up for food during the War of the Camps in Lebanon in 1985. She would share her memories of oppression with us; each one was a painful story of the hardships she endured after leaving Palestine. She dragged herself out of bed every day using a walker and refused to let her disability keep her from living her life. This is where I witnessed firsthand the power of persistence in the face of any hardship life may bring.
Despite our surroundings, we were a proud family that looked beyond the destitution. We celebrated every milestone with love--birthdays, weddings, holidays. Family to us meant belonging and sharing.
Even though the global focus is usually on the "tragedy" of being a refugee (especially around World Refugee Day), I perceive another side of growing up without a country to call one's own. I learned at an early age the struggle to exist, and the perseverance required to live a dignified and confident life. This struggle became my daily reality.
As Malcolm Gladwell so particularly presents in his book David and Goliath, making the case for any perceived physical, mental, or cultural underdog, the normal rules of engagement do not apply. In the mindset of a refugee with a window to those with national citizenship, there is a baseline perseverance to attain the unattainable. Barriers and roadblocks do not exist, only complex obstacles that can be navigated. Every conversation with an individual is a learning opportunity on how to negotiate civil and social structure.
In fact, a growing number of refugees have attained high standing within their adoptive communities, overcoming insurmountable hardships to build and sustain a new life. For Palestinians in Lebanon, however, employment options were, and remain, limited.
Determined to overcome my existence in a refugee camp, I imagined living in a safe place, with access to higher education and a career of my choosing. I imagined being treated with dignity and pride.
Due to Lebanon's ongoing economic and political struggle with its own citizens, it is unable to provide basic services to refugees within its borders. I wanted to carve a path to "greatness" and contribute to the world in a country that would accept my value as a human being.
With patience, persistence, and a sense of hope all passed down to me from my family, I applied for university scholarships everywhere. When Canada reached out, I was overcome with euphoria.
At airports, I felt ashamed carrying a Travel Document for Palestinian Refugees. Being stopped multiple times for questioning --as other travelers breezed through without incident-- only strengthened my resolve to earn the "Holy Grail" of citizenship.
I studied extremely hard, and when I was seventeen, I was awarded the prestigious Global Leader of Tomorrow Award by York University in Toronto for outstanding academic and leadership skills to pursue film production, a passion handed down from my father, and international studies.
Until a Canadian work permit was granted, I launched a fundraising campaign to cover my living expenses. When my work visa application was accepted, I was hired in the Recruitment and Admissions Office at the University. Being employed was indeed a dream come true!
I learned then, and still believe now, that education and employment are sustainable and scalable answers to humanitarian aid. I wanted to help influence a shift in the paradigm of aid, and I wanted to be a positive influence for others from similarly displaced backgrounds.
In 2006, I joined Facebook as my first platform to share my stories, thoughts and perceptions of my journey out of a refugee camp.
I wanted to influence those working with the displaced to focus on education and employment. I wanted to send the message: "Work hard, explore every avenue that might give you the chance to feel welcome in the world that once displaced you." Being a refugee teaches you to ask for help when you need it.
Later, in January 2011, creating a Twitter account provided a wider platform of this opportunity.
Today, I have 257,000 Twitter followers, and I am so grateful that I am able to raise awareness about the plight of refugees, engaging others in discussion and building a rapport on a global level.
With a multitude of stories longer than 140 characters, I was compelled to put pen to paper (or in my case, fingers to keyboard) and write a book. In 2012, my first novel was published: Confessions of a War Child. The main character is a refugee, and the storyline has carried on as a trilogy with the third installment Sahara to be published mid-2015.
Earlier this year, I was invited by The Social Enterprise Project (SEP) Jordan to become an Ambassador of their brilliant organization which provides employment and support to a growing number of women and their families. I decided to partner with them to design the ChakerScarf, embroidered by women in the Jerash Palestinian camp in Jordan and sold internationally.
As a refugee, my quest for an education and a better life led me to Canada. Then I had the incredible honor of becoming a Canadian citizen. While I will always be proud of my Palestinian roots, replacing my Travel Document for Palestinian Refugees with a Canadian Passport was the proudest day of my life and an emotional milestone for two reasons. The first: I now have a country that calls me their own, with all the rights and privileges. The second: as a Canadian citizen, I am finally able to travel to my homeland, Palestine, which as a refugee, I was prohibited from visiting.
This year, my childhood dream of "making a difference in the world" moved closer to fruition. I was ranked by Arabian Business magazine as 36th on their global list of the 100 Most Powerful Arabs Under 40. I hope to continue to inspire and advocate for refugees, aspiring writers, and youth all over the world.
World Refugee Day should be a reminder that we have failed to be a united global nation. It should celebrate the lessons one learns growing up as a refugee. It should spread stories to inspire other refugees. It should provide hope. It should remind those displaced not to be weighed down by circumstances but to figure out ways to overcome them.
Most importantly, June 20th should be a reminder to humanitarian organizations to focus on education and employment as sustainable solutions to the plight of refugees.
António Guterres, High Commissioner for UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), in anticipation of its annual World Refugee Day Campaign, said: "All around the world we are seeing families fleeing violence. The numbers are massive - but we must not forget that these are mothers and fathers, daughters and sons. People who led ordinary lives before war forced them to flee. On this World Refugee Day, everyone should remember the things that connect all of us - our common humanity."
A call to the world: Governments need to facilitate an easier entry process for refugees, utilizing their skills to benefit a new homeland, as Canada did for me. Let us keep in mind that refugees are ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances.
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