The global COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted and threatened the wellbeing of refugees around the world, imposing an even greater uphill battle.
In November 2019, Tecle Gebremichael, of Boise, Idaho, did what he felt was the right way to give back to a community that welcomed him years ago as a refugee fleeing war in Ethiopia: He ran for city council. He was the first refugee to do so, inspired to bring fresh perspective as a new American to the city he settled in.
When Tecle landed in Boise, he only had a pair of shoes to his name. Those shoes were soon traded for boots when he joined the U.S. Army Reserves, vowing to defend and protect his country. He volunteered for local political campaigns, and graduated from Boise State University with a degree in political science. Now, he is a certified interpreter for the Boise Police Department, and in his spare time volunteers to coach youth soccer teams and works with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) as a coordinator for student volunteers.
Tecle went from being an orphaned refugee to being someone who inspires his community to thrive. He is the definition of what all refugees are: essential.
According to the dictionary, “essential” means “extremely important.” The word has surged to importance and daily usage during the global pandemic, as governments and society worked to establish who or what is essential and remain operational.
Each year, the IRC brings awareness to World Refugee Day by honoring and celebrating the contributions that refugees bring to our communities, striving to create compassion and understanding for their cause. But, our world in 2020 differs from recent years – the global COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted and threatened the wellbeing of refugees around the world, imposing an even greater uphill battle. Subsequently, the IRC has brought “essential” to the forefront of their 2020 World Refugee Day campaign, declaring “refugees are essential” and recognizing the refugees that are fighting COVID-19 on the frontlines in healthcare facilities, as volunteers, or working in essential jobs keeping us safe and our communities strong.
“The scale of the challenges we confront every day is daunting and can be depressing,” said the IRC President and CEO David Miliband at a Combined Federal Campaign of the National Capital Area event in 2019, “but my colleagues around the world prove that we can have an impact, that we can turn the tide of even the largest problems if we tackle them piece by piece, person by person. How do you meet the needs of 70 million displaced people around the world? You change the life of one person, and then another, and then another,” said Miliband.
Though said months prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, his sentiments ring true today.
The IRC looks to change one life at a time for the innumerable persons seeking refuge, aid, a new life – and to make the case to the world that refugees are essential.
The pandemic has ushered in a wave of new terminology and phrases to describe our day-to-day lives and activities like “social distancing,” “sheltering-in-place,” “contact tracing,” “working from home” and “essential business.” These phrases and definitions, though benign on the surface as they reflect actions being taken to promote safety and wellbeing of the world, capture a way of life that is inaccessible to refugees and vulnerable persons, deepening the challenges they face in society. Many refugees do not have the opportunity or option to practice physical distancing, access to medical care to be tested and traced, a way to work from home, shelter at which to stay, or have been labelled as non-essential, which threatens and harms their own wellbeing.
This means, refugees and displaced people are among the most at risk in the face of a pandemic like COVID-19. As borders closed, so, too, have refugees’ plans, as programs to help them immigrate to the U.S. have been shut down as being declared “non-essential.” Trapped with no way forward, the aid they’ve relied on becomes harder to access as new restrictions make it difficult for charities to reach them. Survival is even more of a struggle than before. Without essential resources or an open door to opportunity, countless lives are at stake. And without refugees given the opportunity to come to the U.S., we risk losing essential lives who contribute to our society.
The consequences of labelling a refugee as anything but essential harms not just that individual, but all of us.
Refugee stories: Rita
Two years ago, Rita embarked on a path toward securing a safer, more prosperous future for herself and her mother when they sought refuge from the Democratic Republic of Congo. After receiving help and guidance from the IRC, Rita became a certified nursing assistant, and now lives in Missoula, Montana.
Today, as her state has been thrust into the coronavirus pandemic with the rest of the country, she works on the front lines with other health care workers. Her work is saving lives of her neighbors in the U.S. “I take my work very seriously,” she said. “I am caring for people and helping people.”
Without Rita, or the several other health care and essential workers in Missoula who are refugees, there would be fewer front-line nurses in her community, fewer hands to hold through the hardships and more lives at stake in the pandemic.
Rita is a refugee. She is skilled. She is a lifesaver. And she is essential to the lives of those around her.
Refugee stories: Dina
In the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic and heartbeat of the nation, Dina is on the front lines feeding local residents in need in Brooklyn, New York. Her family built a new life there after moving to the U.S. in 2017. Now, she runs the area’s IRC Food Distribution point, distributing hundreds of meals to her community twice a week during the pandemic.
“When I give the people the food they always say ‘thank you, we need this’… and I’m really happy with this,” said Dina about her work.
Dina, too, is a refugee. But she is also a provider, a leader and essential contributor to her community.
Refugees and the IRC
Their stories personify the spirit of the refugee in the U.S.: hard-working, determined to help others and fulfilled by their mission to do so. Through their efforts, and those of thousands of other refugees in the U.S., their communities are supported and cared for.
The IRC’s commitment to refugees is also exemplified in their stories. The IRC provides support to refugees in a number of ways and programs. In 2018, in the U.S. alone, IRC assisted over 2,100 parents and children filing for asylum – and, separately, they safely resettled 5,374 approved refugees across 25 U.S. cities. They also served close to 10,000 people in need of empowerment through vocational training, asset building and financial coaching. A lot of these services are thanks to the more than 200,000 volunteer hours donated by over 8,000 U.S. volunteers.
Those 5,374 people, who had been waiting years for approval in some cases, are now giving back to their communities and contributing to greater efforts and causes in the U.S. Inspired by the help they received, they in turn support and lift up their new communities. That’s 5,374 additional pairs of hands to hold through crises, and 5,374 essential lives doing essential work.
Their values and missions are also promoted by famous refugees – the IRC was, after all, founded by Albert Einsten in 1933 after he fled Nazi Germany and called for the formation of a humanitarian and aid organization to assist other refugees fleeing persecution and other disasters. Madeleine Albright, Elie Wiesel and Marc Chagall are among hundreds of notable refugees whose work and contributions to society have been honored by the IRC. These famous refugees have become notable figures in society, proving that they and their work, ideas and missions are essential to our collective way of life – we would not be where we are today without those inspiring voices and contributions.
Each of them have similar stories to Tecle, Rita and Dina. They all started off as vulnerable individuals in need of a second chance at life. They all immigrated to a new home – some thanks to the IRC – settled, and gave back to their new communities, contributing to the economy, society and humanity. They are now secure and able to carry on IRC’s missions because they were rescued and given an opportunity at a new life.
But most importantly, what they all have in common is being essential. When they are given essential tools to succeed, they become essential fixtures of our communities.
We can lend a proverbial helping hand to refugees, and we don’t need to wait for next year’s World Refugee Day to do it! We can act now to protect those essential persons who keep us safe, keep our communities strong and will help to rebuild our world after the pandemic.
If you are a leader or an employer, here are some ways to get involved with the IRC through partnership:
- Share stories like Rita’s through digital platforms. Harnessing social media can help bring about awareness in the digital age. Awareness can spark conversation and change. If you have an employee who is a refugee, consider promoting their own story (with their permission) to offer insight to your company’s values of empowering refugees by standing with and by them.
- Thank refugees, and encourage your employees to do the same. You can shout it from the rooftops or on social media channels, or do so in the form of a donation.
- Call on your local and national legislators to protect refugees and keep them at the forefront of their legislation to uphold America’s legacy of welcome. Take action!
- Amplify support for IRC and refugees by broadcasting messages through your networks. This can be through social media (be sure to tag the IRC!), blog posts, press releases, newsletters and more!
- Leverage your company’s platform to raise awareness. A company making a statement in solidarity will have a large impact and garner attention and support from customers and clients, inspiring them to participate and raise their voices. Hint: Is your CEO or other leadership active on social media? Utilize their voices to reach a wider audience and boost engagement.
- Engage employees by offering programs, literature, or ways they can learn about refugees, donate or share their own messages. Wondering how you can integrate the IRC into your workplace giving campaign? We can help with that!
- Establish a corporate partnership by designing a custom program to effectively engage your company and employees. The IRC relies on support from the private sector and will work with you to design a unique program that’s right for your company.
- Match donated funds from your employees at events or the IRC fundraisers, especially if those events have influencers attending.
And this is just the beginning. There is a lot of work to do, especially in the face of a pandemic and challenges around the world. But each movement starts with a single voice making a ripple, leading to a tidal wave of change. We each have the opportunity to recognize refugees as essential, and take the first step to help them. Nobody in this world is nonessential – in work or in life.
“That’s what I’m asking you to do today – do not despair at the size of the task, simply help us change the life of one person at a time,” said Miliband. “Every single one of you…has that power, if you choose to use it.”