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UN marks World Refugee Day with message of hope

UN marks World Refugee Day with message of hope and events around the globe

From remote camps to big cities, from the steaming lowlands of Liberia to the high plateaux of Afghanistan, from floodlit fountains to fashion shows and soccer matches, the United Nations today celebrated World Refugee Day with a message of “Hope” broadcast around the globe by leaders, film stars and refugees themselves.

“Let this Day serve as a reminder of our responsibility to help keep hope alive among those who need it most – the millions of refugees and displaced who are still far from home,” Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a message, underlining this year’s theme.

“For the thousands of people forced to flee their homes each year, escaping with their lives and a few belongings, is often just the start of a long struggle. Once they have found safety from persecution or war, they still face enormous challenges just trying to obtain things most of us take for granted - schooling, a job, decent housing or health care.”

The theme of hope was chosen to highlight the continuing efforts of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its partners to find lasting solutions for millions of refugees and displaced people worldwide.

“If there is one common trait among the tens of millions of refugees that we at the UN refugee agency have helped over the past 55 years, it's the fact that despite losing everything, they never give up hope,” said High Commissioner António Guterres, who marked the Day on the ground at the Bo Waterside area near the Liberia-Sierra Leone border, meeting returning refugees and displaced people.

“Despite the enormity of their suffering, refugees never give up their dream of home and all it entails ... the fact they maintain that hope, sometimes against all odds, should be an inspiration to us all,” he added.

There are currently 20.8 million people of concern toUNHCR, including 8.4 million refugees, more than 5 million of whom have been in exile for five years or longer.

In a message picked up by TV stations around the world, United States actress Angelina Jolie, a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, urged people to remember those forced to flee their homes. “I'm Angelina Jolie. For the millions of displaced persons around the world, please help keep their hope alive and remember World Refugee Day,” she said in the message, recently recorded in Namibia where she gave birth to a daughter.

In Buta in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a simple man who had not seen his homeland in four decades since he was taken by his fleeing family to Sudan as a four-month old infant, symbolized UNHCR’s work and the Day’s theme.

“I am now 41 and ready to start a new life,” Alberto Imangilikuwa said on arrival at Buta airport. “I am now middle-aged and ready to start new ventures in life,” he added in Juba Arabic, a language he speaks more fluently than his native Lingala. He is one of 648 long-time refugees brought home in an airlift that ended on Sunday.

“Mbira, mbira” (palm tree) Mr. Imangilikuwa and his companions shouted on arrival, overjoyed at the sight of the thick forest surrounding Buta airport. For their entire exile in Sudan, they had never seen the beloved palm trees from which their favourite cooking oil is extracted.

UNHCR agreed to repatriate the group although it does not consider the conditions in the areas of return to be favourable and conducive to sustainable return because the refugees demanded to leave Sudan.

A world away in Afghanistan, UNHCR marked the Day with a documentary film and visits to aid centres in a country that has produced the largest group among the Agency’s total global populations of concern. Since the ouster of the Taliban regime more than four years ago, some 4.6 million Afghans have returned from Iran and Pakistan.

Across the Hindu Kush mountains in Pakistan, where 2.6 million Afghans still remain after 3 million returned home, one of the highlights of the Day was a fashion show of costumes from Afghanistan’s myriad of ethnic groups. Other activities showcased refugee cuisine, music, dances, arts and crafts.

In Geneva, UNHCR’s home base, the city’s iconic 140-metre-high jet d’eau fountain and public buildings around the country were set to be bathed in blue, the UN colour, and World Refugee Day banners were to line the Mont Blanc bridge. Australia was illuminating the old parliament building and other landmarks in Canberra, the capital.

Other countries were hosting a wide range of activities, including film festivals, photo exhibitions, food bazaars, fashion shows, concerts and sports, including lots of soccer in a nod to the World Cup in Germany, with games being played from Côte d’Ivoire to Nepal and from Ecuador to Turkmenistan. There will also be quizzes, drawing and essay-writing competitions, tree planting, seminars and workshops.

Across the Atlantic in the Americas, refugees were set to paint a mural on a wall in the Ecuadorean city of Ibarra, just one of many celebrations in the hemisphere, while in Asia a free Refugee Film Week is under way in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and refugee art is on auction in Bangkok, Thailand, again just two of many continent-wide events.

“The international community owes returning refugees more than just a cooking pot and a handshake when they cross the border,” High Commissioner Guterres said, summing up the day. “We must continue to nurture their return and reintegration and to support the communities to which they are returning.”

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