2023 Through the Voices of Refugees
04 January 2024|Chloe Gunther
This story first appeared in JRS INSIDER, a monthly newsletter including stories of impact across JRS global.
Through my work at JRS, I have the honor and privilege of hearing how our global community has coped and persevered through unimaginable losses and hardships. My hope is that the stories below will help you reflect on what kind of year our world has had through the eyes of those who have witnessed these events firsthand. With that in mind, let us travel back to the beginning of 2023.
In February, our JRS community witnessed the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. Over 50,000 people lost their lives and nearly 6 million people were displaced.
JRS volunteers were there, accompanying people as they fought to survive. JRS met Khawla*, a young mother during this time. Expecting her third child, Khawla lost her husband in the earthquake. She had fled Aleppo and experienced severe malnutrition during the final months of her pregnancy. JRS provided emergency assistance, food, and water until Khawla had to be hospitalized to save her and the baby.
Her son, Ziad*, was born at just over one kilogram but he, like his mother, was strong. He survived his long stay in the hospital and is now a healthy little boy. JRS accompanied Khawla through this difficult time and today, she and her three children live in an apartment and their well-being has improved significantly.
“Everything has changed for us during these few months. My baby is alive and healthy…We have our own privacy now, so my children can grow in a better environment, and I feel strong and motivated to take proper care of them,” she told JRS.
Our colleagues in the JRS Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Regional Office warned of the impact of international focus shifting away from Syria. “Syria was forgotten before this earthquake, if the world forgets about the country again the consequences will be even worse.” Let us remember all those in Syria who have been forced from their homes and continue seeking safety.
In March, we celebrated International Women’s Day by honoring the hundreds of thousands of strong, change-making women in our JRS community. Staff from JRS Lebanon, Cameroon, Uganda, Kenya, Poland, and the US participated in a panel discussion and shared the psychological cost of being forced to flee home and how displacement affects women differently.
Heavens Lamaro, a Mental Health and Psychosocial support (MHPSS) Officer in Kampala, Uganda, described how refugee women in the Kampala community often experience loneliness and struggle to cope with the loss of family members.
She told the story of one woman who had a particularly difficult pregnancy. JRS staff in Kampala became key members of her support system and when her daughter was born, she named her Hope because, Lamaro said, “when JRS supported her…it gave her hope.”
In April and May, violence between different armed groups in Sudan escalated and war broke out. Nearly 7 million people have been forced to flee their homes. JRS is at the border in South Sudan meeting people there, providing emergency resources while working towards creating more sustainable programs but the situation is dire and requires our attention and support.
“Education is the only weapon to fight violence and ignorance,” said Kuaae, a teacher who fled the conflict in Sudan. He was teaching at his school when bombs started falling around the building. He and his family fled to Renk, South Sudan, where they met JRS.
Kuaae is now a leader in the JRS Renk community helping to educate the community, allocate resources, and figure out what the greatest needs amongst people are. I urge you not to forget about the human lives impacted by the war in Sudan.
In July, we met Maria Sajquim de Torres, PhD, JRS/USA’s Director of Domestic Programs. She introduced us to Rita*, the first person whom JRS accompanied through its MHPSS programs.
Rita’s asylum case had been denied and while waiting inside a shelter, without her loved ones, she struggled with her mental health. When Maria met with her, they practiced breathing exercises, emotional freedom techniques, and different problem-solving skills to manage her stress.
Several challenging months later, Maria was in El Paso working with migrants when she received a phone call from Rita. Maria braced herself, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. “I’m in El Paso!” Rita’s elated voice rang out through the phone. She had finally been granted asylum.
She asked Maria how to get to the airport and Maria immediately offered to go pick her up.
“I was so happy to see her,” Maria said. She watched Rita walk away, towards a safer life, towards reunification with her support system and loved ones.
“Her story shows how much suffering is inflicted on these individuals but also how much these individuals are able to overcome,” Maria said.
This year, within the JRS community we also saw great strides for increasing inclusive education. In Maban, South Sudan, with the support of the U.S. State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, a daycare program has officially transformed into a rehabilitation center for refugee children with disabilities.
Winnie Nandwa has served as an Occupational Therapist with the JRS Maban team since 2020. “What inspires me is seeing the children meet their goals…it is really worth it, seeing the children able to attend school,” Winnie said.
In addition to increasing quality of life and access to education, Winnie said, the stigma surrounding disabilities in the Maban community has lessened. Before, a child born with any physical or cognitive limitations could be seen as a curse on the family. But now, caretakers see their children reach milestones, attend school, and even participate in JRS facilitated support groups to talk with other caretakers. This has helped raise awareness around disabilities, creating a significantly more inclusive community.
Finally, just last month, we met Aganze, Peter, and Amani, three artists from Kampala, Uganda who created a painting for this year’s JRS/USA Christmas Card. The three men are from the Democratic Republic of Congo and had to flee their homes when conflict and violence imminently threatened their lives. Now, in Kampala, they volunteer and teach art classes to children in the JRS community.
“Because we know what many people here have gone through, we can show them that hopefully it will get better soon,” Amani said.
“You must never give up,” Aganze said, when I asked what message they would most like to share. “Keep going towards what you are passionate about,” Peter added.
*Names changed to protect anonymity