“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
There are currently 26.4 million refugees in the world. Over half of them are children; hundreds of thousands of them are children traveling alone. They have fled violence, conflict, and intense persecution in the hope that the rest of the world will show some humanity.
Children are the first to see magic, the last to lose hope. Long after adults have given in to despair and cynicism, a child believes in that which is good and right. That is why in the middle of a dusty, abandoned factory-turned-refugee-camp in Greece, you can still hear laughs and cries, hear the patter of feet on the cement floor, and feel a tiny hand slip into yours. Despite all that has happened in their short lives, they are willing to trust, to make a new friend, to hope for love returned.
These three boys fled violence and persecution in Afghanistan, undertook perilous journeys with their families, and landed in the refugee camp in Greece where I met them. One of them trailed me all day, wanting to play, laugh, hold hands, and watch me draw. The others scuffled in the dirt, took turns on the one bicycle in the camp, bossed the younger children, annoyed the teenage girls, struck endless ‘peace’ and ‘love’ poses for the camera, and generally got underfoot, all with the youthful optimism of a Cub Scout.
Their future is uncertain, and their past is gone forever. This precarious position could understandably inspire fear, mistrust, and despair. Yet so often it is the children who are able to rise above the rhetoric of fear and show us all what humanity really means.
Fahim - BOY ON LEFT MAKING PEACE SIGN
Fahim is the oldest of five boys. He was seven when his family had to flee Afghanistan. In the last five years, he has lived in four countries and learned three languages.
In the last six years Fahim:
Travelled over 4,300 miles, mostly on foot.
Lived for a year in an internment camp in Hungary.
Lived for months in a tent in a forest.
Watched his father be beaten by smugglers.
Saw his mother cross mountains pregnant
Witnessed the birth of two brothers in camps.
Lost a brother to smugglers for three days.
Grappled with the news of loved ones back home enduring torture and disappearing.
He has known starvation and rejection.
Because of his family’s journey, Fahim missed five years of school. Last year, he and his family finally arrived in Germany. Now, at age twelve, his family of seven live in two rooms in an asylum house with six other people. He is attending school and learning German. Fahim says it is hard to make friends, difficult to adjust after everything he has experienced. He has a wise, worn look to him. But he is quick to flash his warm dimpled smile – and is eager to learn.
For more on Fahim's family. Click here
Jaan - BOY IN THE MIDDLE
“I have four talented children —I promise everybody … they are a treasure of talent. I don’t want them to take a weapon; I want them to replace the gun with the paint and pen. I don’t want my son to become talib [Taliban] or daish [Isis], to kill people. They should be the best soccer player (and they have talent), they should be the best engineer, doctor, anything else … I want them to be safe and secure… —they will grow up. And I’m responsible for their future." - Jaan's father from a camp 2016
Jaan’s father seized an opportunity to fly Jaan with his mother and younger sister to Germany, leaving father and 2 older brothers behind in Greece. For more than a year Jaan, at age 10, had to be ‘the man of the house’ while his mother and father tried every avenue possible to be reunited. Finally, in 2018, their efforts paid off. Today Jaan is a strong – almost cocky - 13-year-old. What he doesn’t have in size he has in confidence. He is fluent in German, and excelling in school. The family owns a small business in their town and are thriving. Each member of his family is an active, contributing citizen in their community.
Isaaq - BOY ON RIGHT FORMING HEART WITH HANDS
Isaaq was 7 when his father returned home from his job as a teacher, beaten and badly injured by the Taliban. Three weeks later, after his father was recovered enough to walk, they left everything behind and fled towards Europe.
By the time he was ten he had walked through Iran, Turkey, Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia, and then been sent back to Greece. His mother, who was 9 months pregnant with Isaac’s youngest sister, was able to fly from Greece to Germany. He, his three spunky sisters, and father were in Greece for over a year before they were able to join her. Today Isaac is a quiet, withdrawn 13-year-old. He has been in Germany for three years, and is attending school.
The Emerald Project is a Utah-based organization that carefully designs dialogues to engage with non-Muslims to make Salt Lake Valley a more welcoming home to Muslims. As many of our refugee friends belong to the Muslim faith, we applaud opportunities that foster understanding and were pleased to support The Emerald Project’s 3rd annual “Slam the Islamophobia” event on February 15th.
Refugees often risk their lives crossing deserts, jungles, and oceans all in the search for shelter, freedom, or happiness. Yet, even once they’ve reached physical safety, mental mountains emerge that make daily life an uphill climb. At the November 2022 conference for the Utah Chapter of the Society for Public Health Education (USOPHE), presenters Shurooq Al Jewari and Sasha Sloan discussed mental health and inclusion, focusing on immigrants and refugees.
Holidays are an important time to include newcomers. Newcomers are often aching for the traditions and holiday magic they knew at home - and the connections with family and friends. The Garcias* came from a strong family and community that knew generous and giving holiday traditions. I knew, when I met our new friends from Venezuela, the rich bond we would have; this was a kindred spirit family. Even though we have been bad at communicating (Google Translate is such a false hope), it was easy to find connections that helped us love each other.