By Ellie Hutchison, a member of the Collective
It took Sylvia’s family 17 years to be resettled.
That meant 17 years of uncertainty. 17 years of struggling to live an ordinary, stable life—to find jobs, go to school, and create a sense “home” in an unfamiliar place.
Today, Sylvia is a Community Connector at Treetops. But her journey to Grand Rapids was a long one.
Her family was forced to leave their home in Rwanda when genocide broke out in 1994. After 17 years of living in flux, they were resettled in Grand Rapids in 2011 through the United Nations Refugee Agency and the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program. Sylvia proudly shares, “This program has a long history of welcoming families like mine who have been forced to leave their homes, families, everything they’ve known and loved, for their survival.”
On this World Refugee Day, Sylvia reflects with gratitude on how lucky her family was to be resettled. While the resettlement process may take years, 99 percent of refugees are never resettled at all.
Plus, recent changes to immigration policy and the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program are slowly dismantling the resettlement system altogether. Families who are currently waiting for a new home will be waiting even longer, and maybe even forever.
This reality is daunting for the 68.5 million people around the world who are classified as forcibly displaced, 25.4 million of whom are refugees.
Factors such as famine, poverty, and natural disaster cause displacement. However, a refugee is uniquely defined by the United Nations as: “someone who has been forced to flee their country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.”
Our world is witnessing the highest level of displacement ever recorded, yet there is a decreasing chance that refugees will be resettled.
At Treetops, we feel called to meet this global crisis with a spirit of radical hospitality. We believe in welcoming our newest neighbors to Grand Rapids while advocating for just policies at the national level. And when it comes to our national policies, we can do better.
Compared to other economically affluent nations, the U.S. has one of the lowest numbers of refugees per capita. For example, Sweden has an average of 17 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants, France has 4.2, and the United Kingdom has 1.9. The U.S has only 0.8 refugees per 1,000 people.
And despite the urgency of the global refugee crisis, the U.S. continues to lower the ceiling for resettlement. In 2016, we resettled 84,994 refugees. In 2017, we resettled just 53,716. The 2018 ceiling was lowered to 45,000, but we’re not on track to reach that. Around 5,000 refugees were resettled in the first three months of this year.
These numbers can be overwhelming, but Sylvia’s story reminds us that each number reflects an individual like her. Someone with a unique story, yet someone who still shares core human desires for peace and stability, the opportunity to work and learn, a community to belong in, and a place to call home.
It is also important to remember that people’s multifaceted identities extend beyond their experience as refugees. As Shadia, our Director of Community Development and a former refugee, says: “being a refugee is a status, but it does not define me as an individual.”
Sylvia echoes this. “Refugee is a status, it’s not an identity. It is a large part of my story and the story of millions of others, but you are also a part of our stories. You have the ability to create change by writing your leaders, honoring the stories of others by listening to them, and creating more welcoming communities right where you live.”
So, this World Refugee Day, how will you stand with refugees?
Whether you write your representatives, pray for those who are experiencing displacement, or sign-up to volunteer with Treetops or another organization—we invite you into the story. We invite you to push past the daunting reality of the global refugee crisis and the confusion of our policies and systems. We invite you to choose love and play an active role in creating a more just, welcoming community for all. We invite you to join the story.