SALT LAKE CITY — A family of five living in a tent. Women and children walking for miles to collect firewood and water. Waiting in lines for food, and cooking meals of beans and rice over a tire. Children crowding into schools where poorly trained teachers try to teach students of all ages at the same time, without books or other materials.
This is life in a refugee camp, and Utah residents had a chance to see it for themselves at the Sept. 27 “Forced to Flee” event put on by Catholic Community Services at Salt Lake City’s Gallivan Center.
Today more than 68 million people have been displaced by civil war and political unrest; of those, 22 million are in refugee camps throughout the world.
“As we speak, people are being forced to flee their home countries,” said Adan Batar, CCS’ director of immigration and refugee resettlement, at the press conference that preceded the Forced to Flee event.
Less than 1 percent of refugees are accepted for resettlement in countries throughout the world. In 2016, the United States resettled 85,000 refugees; for the next fiscal year the federal administration is calling for only 30,000 to be resettled.
In Utah, refugees who have been resettled include Batar, who with his family was the first Somali refugee resettled in the Beehive State; and Kossi Agabli, a refugee from Togo who was a physician in his country and who was among the guides at the Forced to Flee event.
Agabli and other guides spoke of life as refugees – fleeing violence, living in camps where there was only one doctor for 1,000 people, the uncertainty of waiting for resettlement.
“It really does choke me up, when you talk about ‘forced to flee.’ Nobody in this world should be forced to flee their home where maybe their families have been there for generations,” Pamela Atkinson, a member of the state’s Refugee Advisory Board and herself an immigrant from England, said at the press conference.
Gov. Gary Herbert will be writing a letter to President Donald Trump to request that more refugees be admitted to the U.S., Atkinson said.
“Welcoming refugees and immigrants is a part of the Catholic tradition,” said Bishop Oscar A. Solis at the press conference. “It is a fundamental element of Catholic Social Teaching of the Church. It is something that is ingrained in our nature in order to love our neighbors, to consider everybody as our brothers and sisters and to treat each one – irrespective of our diversity and differences – as equal in the sight of God and equal in the sight of our society.”
About 230 people attended the event, learning from former refugees and CCS staff about life in a camp.
“The most feedback I got was how informative it was,” said Danielle Stamos, CCS director of public relations and marketing. She added that plans are to make it an annual event, with the next one scheduled for June 2019.
Bishop Solis, who immigrated to the U. S. from the Philippines, had to wait 15 years before he was granted citizenship. However, after going through the exhibit, he said, “I was so blessed compared to the harrowing experiences these refugees have to go through.”
He added, “I cannot imagine the life [in a refugee camp]. It makes me more convinced and certain in my resolve to do the best I can to provide hospitality, compassion and mercy to those people in need.”