For many Americans, refugees seem a world away, a category of people who should be watched on CNN rather than encountered on the streets of the news channel’s hometown.
But during their annual conference on Saturday, Feb. 9, the young professionals of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta will come face to face with the fact that more than 12 million people around the globe are living in lands not their own while fleeing persecution or conflict.
The council is partnering with CARE, the Atlanta-based aid organization, to explore how they can help remedy a humanitarian challenge that will persist as long as there is instability in some nations and humanitarian concern in others.
Refugees often face dire choices between life-threatening situations in their homelands and dismal living conditions in camps where their families can be stuck for years on end, said Jonathan Mitchell, CARE’s chief operating officer.
Since the early 1990s, Mr. Mitchell and CARE have worked in the Dadaab Camp in the arid region of eastern Kenya, which now has more than 500,000 people, mostly from neighboring Somalia.
While the conditions have vastly improved since his work began in 1992, aid agencies running the camp are caught between the need to provide adequate services and making sure it doesn’t outshine the areas outside the fences, which are often underprivileged in their own right.
Some refugees are eventually resettled in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, but it’s a small percentage. Besides, that’s not the ideal solution anyway, said Mr. Mitchell, who added that powers like the United States should work toward political and economic reforms that establish peace on the ground in afflicted countries.
Beyond CARE’s presence, the refugee crisis hits home in Atlanta in many ways. For one, the Clarkston area of DeKalb County has been one of the most hospitable communities in the country for resettled refugees from Bhutan to Burundi, with many organizations setting up shop there to help inbound families.
In addition to speakers including luncheon keynoter Anne Richard, assistant secretary of population, refugees and migration at the State Department, conference attendees will have a chance to interact with Refugee Family Services, International Rescue Committee and Clarkston Development Foundation, all of which help refugees build new lives.
Mr. Mitchell, who will keynote a morning session, said the conference should help Atlantans better understand refugees, who desire to live productive lives and often start their journeys in jobs Americans would look down upon, including poultry processing in the plants of North Georgia.
While they’re “innocent civilians” living hard lives, most seek opportunity rather than pity.
“I think it’s very important for people to understand the whole picture of refugees. It’s different from other forms of migration,” he said. “These are people that will contribute – do contribute – to society here in the U.S. The responsibility of all of us is to understand the situation and to support it as much as we can.”
Especially since the first immigrants to this new world were refugees themselves, Mr. Mitchell added.
“It’s a solidarity with humanity,” he said.
For more information or to register for the conference, click here.