Guterres visits refugee groups in New York and urges countries to offer more resettlement opportunities


On the eve of World Refugee Day, which is celebrated annually on June 20, the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, visited this Saturday a group of refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan who now live, work and enhance the vitality of New York City.

“Like millions of refugees around the world, they bring new vitality, prosperity and diversity to their host communities. We must continue to support them,” the UN chief said on Twitter after the visit.

Guterres, who served as High Commissioner for the UN Refugee Agency between 2005 and 2015, highlighted the vital role played by developed nations. when it comes to welcoming refugees and offering them opportunities, whoever they are and wherever they come from.

When you think tomorrow may be your last day

Guterres’ first stop was in the Brooklyn borough, where he visited Suzan Al Shammari, an Iraqi refugee who fled with her family from Baghdad to Cairo in 2010. In the Egyptian capital they were registered at the offices of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and were later able to resettle in the State of California. From there, thanks to the help they received, they were able to reach New York City.

Al Shammari told the Secretary-General that, having grown up in wartime circumstances, he wants to help other refugees. In that spirit, he currently works as a social worker at a non-governmental organization after graduating with a master’s degree from a UK university.

“Every day you think it might be your last. And it’s not just one of those experiences… it can literally be your last. When I went to Egypt with my family it was also hard being there as a refugee in limbo. So moving to the United States, great as that blessing was, it took me a few years to adjust to the fact that I’m not going to die tomorrow,” Al Shammari said.

He added that resettlement offers a “second chance” to those forced to flee their countries.

“Welcome refugees is a way to save lives and it is something that every leader, every country, should contribute and take responsibility for (…) Taking that step and welcoming refugees is a measure that saves lives,” he said.

Al Shammari considers himself a “lucky” person, as he had the opportunity to find a new home, but he also stressed the importance of having a previous education and mastering the language of his host country.

“I can say from my personal experience with my parents that it’s not easy to come to a country you don’t know, with a language you don’t speak. My parents were engineers in Iraq and they can’t work even with their degrees (… ) I sincerely believe that if companies took more initiative, hired refugees and created more opportunities for immigrants, that would help,” he said.

According to the latest data from the United Nations, there are currently almost 1.2 million internally displaced persons in Iraq. At the same time, the Arab country hosts more than 290,000 Syrian refugees and those from other countries.

Happy about resettlement, but worried about his family

After meeting with Al Shammari, Guterres visited an Afghan couple, Shafi Alif and Rohina Sofizada. At his apartment in the borough of Queens, the UN chief was greeted with a cup of spiced green tea and traditional Afghan sweets.

Alif told the Secretary-General that his family fled Afghanistan for Pakistan when he was five months old, in 1992. The family walked for 40 days to ask for asylum in Pakistan, where they stayed for more than 10 years.. Like Al Shammari, they also registered with a UNHCR delegation.

With the help of the agency, Alif and her family voluntarily returned to Afghanistan in 2002. After returning to their country and settling back in Kabul, they received financial support that included transportation and a cash salary, among other aid.

The couple admitted to having lived “quiet years” in the country until 2018, when Sofizada, who worked at the US embassy in Kabul, received a special visa to resettle in the United States. Alif joined her a little later on a special immigrant visa, since he was working with the Polish army in the Afghan capital.

Today they are happy to have been able to get to the United States, but they are still worried about their relatives, who they are now in Pakistan, having left Kabul after the Taliban seized power in 2021.

“My family was turned away twice at the border, even though they had all the visas and documents. They had to walk to Pakistan, as they don’t receive many Afghans. It’s a relief to be here, but we are still worried about our relatives,” Sofizada said. .

Like Al Shammari, Shafi works as a social worker for an NGO that supports displaced Afghans. She says that no refugee is “happy to leave their country” and that, due to violence or persecution, they leave because they have no other choice.

“We need more resettlement places, we need more help in different aspects, such as covering basic needs, housing, anything that is necessary for a refugee. Thus, they can be of help to the community in which they live,” he explained. .

According to UNHCR, Afghans constitute one of the largest refugee populations in the world. There are currently 2.6 million registered Afghan refugees worldwide, 2.2 million of them in Iran and Pakistan alone. Another 3.5 million are internally displaced.

More than half of the Afghan population, or 24 million people, faces severe food insecurity and an estimated 97% of the population lives well below the poverty line.

Resettlement opportunities are increasingly scarce

Concluding the visits, Guterres called on developed nations to do more, reminding them of the critical role they must play in welcoming refugees and giving them a chance to start over in a safe environment, away from the degrading situations that they may encounter in the camps or in poor accommodation conditions.

The UN Secretary General recalled that during his time as High Commissioner of the UN Refugee Agency, there were twice as many resettlement opportunities available for people coming from refugee camps or other complicated situations.

For this reason, he asked that more States open their borders to asylum seekers and help them find better living conditions.

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