sponsored links
TEDGlobal 2014

Melissa Fleming: How to help refugees rebuild their world

October 8, 2014

Today's refugee crisis is the biggest since World War II, and it's growing. When this talk was given, 50 million people had been forcefully displaced from their homes by conflict and war; now, a year later, the number is 60 million. There were 3 million Syrian refugees in 2014; now there are 4 million. Inside this overwhelming crisis are the individual human stories -- of care, growth and family, in the face of lost education, lost home, lost future. Melissa Fleming of the UN's refugee agency tells the refugees' stories -- and asks us to help them rebuild their world.

Melissa Fleming - Voice for refugees
As head of communications for the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees, Melissa Fleming sheds light on their devastating plight and remarkable resilience. Full bio

sponsored links
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
So I started working
00:12
with refugees because I wanted
00:14
to make a difference,
00:16
and making a difference starts
00:18
with telling their stories.
00:20
So when I meet refugees,
00:22
I always ask them questions.
00:23
Who bombed your house?
00:26
Who killed your son?
00:29
Did the rest of your family make it out alive?
00:31
How are you coping
00:35
in your life in exile?
00:37
But there's one question that always seems to me
00:40
to be most revealing, and that is:
00:43
What did you take?
00:45
What was that most important thing
00:47
that you had to take with you
00:50
when the bombs were exploding in your town,
00:52
and the armed gangs were approaching your house?
00:55
A Syrian refugee boy I know
01:00
told me that he didn't hesitate
01:02
when his life was in imminent danger.
01:05
He took his high school diploma,
01:09
and later he told me why.
01:12
He said, "I took my high school diploma
01:14
because my life depended on it."
01:17
And he would risk his life to get that diploma.
01:20
On his way to school, he would dodge snipers.
01:23
His classroom sometimes shook
01:27
with the sound of bombs and shelling,
01:29
and his mother told me,
01:33
"Every day, I would say to him every morning,
01:35
'Honey, please don't go to school.'"
01:39
And when he insisted, she said,
01:41
"I would hug him as if it were for the last time."
01:45
But he said to his mother,
01:49
"We're all afraid,
01:51
but our determination to graduate
01:53
is stronger than our fear."
01:56
But one day, the family got terrible news.
01:59
Hany's aunt, his uncle and his cousin
02:02
were murdered in their homes for refusing
02:05
to leave their house.
02:08
Their throats were slit.
02:09
It was time to flee.
02:12
They left that day, right away, in their car,
02:14
Hany hidden in the back because they were facing
02:17
checkpoints of menacing soldiers.
02:19
And they would cross the border into Lebanon,
02:23
where they would find peace.
02:27
But they would begin a life of grueling hardship
02:29
and monotony.
02:33
They had no choice but to build a shack
02:36
on the side of a muddy field,
02:39
and this is Hany's brother Ashraf,
02:40
who plays outside.
02:42
And that day, they joined
02:44
the biggest population of refugees in the world,
02:47
in a country, Lebanon, that is tiny.
02:52
It only has four million citizens,
02:55
and there are one million Syrian refugees living there.
02:57
There's not a town, a city or a village
03:01
that is not host to Syrian refugees.
03:05
This is generosity and humanity
03:10
that is remarkable.
03:13
Think about it this way, proportionately.
03:17
It would be as if
03:20
the entire population of Germany,
03:22
80 million people,
03:25
would flee to the United States in just three years.
03:27
Half of the entire population of Syria
03:32
is now uprooted,
03:36
most of them inside the country.
03:38
Six and a half million people
03:40
have fled for their lives.
03:42
Over and well over three million people
03:45
have crossed the borders
03:48
and have found sanctuary
in the neighboring countries,
03:49
and only a small proportion, as you see,
03:53
have moved on to Europe.
03:56
What I find most worrying
04:00
is that half of all Syrian refugees are children.
04:03
I took this picture of this little girl.
04:07
It was just two hours after she had arrived
04:09
after a long trek from Syria into Jordan.
04:12
And most troubling of all
04:16
is that only 20 percent of
Syrian refugee children
04:20
are in school in Lebanon.
04:23
And yet, Syrian refugee children,
04:27
all refugee children tell us
04:30
education is the most important thing in their lives.
04:32
Why? Because it allows them to think of their future
04:37
rather than the nightmare of their past.
04:41
It allows them to think of hope rather than hatred.
04:45
I'm reminded of a recent visit I took
04:50
to a Syrian refugee camp in northern Iraq,
04:52
and I met this girl,
04:56
and I thought, "She's beautiful,"
04:58
and I went up to her and asked her,
04:59
"Can I take your picture?"
05:01
And she said yes,
05:03
but she refused to smile.
05:05
I think she couldn't,
05:08
because I think she must realize that she represents
05:11
a lost generation of Syrian refugee children,
05:14
a generation isolated and frustrated.
05:19
And yet, look at what they fled:
05:23
utter destruction,
05:27
buildings, industries, schools, roads, homes.
05:29
Hany's home was also destroyed.
05:34
This will need to be rebuilt
05:37
by architects, by engineers, by electricians.
05:40
Communities will need teachers and lawyers
05:45
and politicians interested in reconciliation
05:49
and not revenge.
05:53
Shouldn't this be rebuilt
05:56
by the people with the largest stake,
05:57
the societies in exile, the refugees?
06:01
Refugees have a lot of time
06:06
to prepare for their return.
06:09
You might imagine that being a refugee
06:11
is just a temporary state.
06:14
Well far from it.
06:17
With wars going on and on,
06:20
the average time a refugee will spend in exile
06:23
is 17 years.
06:27
Hany was into his second year in limbo
06:30
when I went to visit him recently,
06:34
and we conducted our entire conversation in English,
06:36
which he confessed to me he learned
06:40
from reading all of Dan Brown's novels
06:42
and from listening to American rap.
06:46
We also spent some nice moments of laughter
06:50
and fun with his beloved brother Ashraf.
06:53
But I'll never forget what he told me
06:57
when we ended our conversation that day.
06:59
He said to me,
07:02
"If I am not a student, I am nothing."
07:05
Hany is one of 50 million people
07:10
uprooted in this world today.
07:14
Never since World War II
07:18
have so many people been forcibly displaced.
07:20
So while we're making sweeping progress
07:26
in human health,
07:28
in technology, in education and design,
07:30
we are doing dangerously little
07:35
to help the victims
07:39
and we are doing far too little
07:42
to stop and prevent
07:45
the wars that are driving them from their homes.
07:47
And there are more and more victims.
07:50
Every day, on average,
07:55
by the end of this day,
07:58
32,000 people will be forcibly displaced
08:00
from their homes —
08:04
32,000 people.
08:06
They flee across borders like this one.
08:11
We captured this on the Syrian border to Jordan,
08:15
and this is a typical day.
08:18
Or they flee on unseaworthy and overcrowded boats,
08:25
risking their lives in this case
08:30
just to reach safety in Europe.
08:32
This Syrian young man
08:34
survived one of these boats that capsized —
08:36
most of the people drowned —
08:39
and he told us,
08:41
"Syrians are just looking for a quiet place
08:43
where nobody hurts you,
08:47
where nobody humiliates you,
08:50
and where nobody kills you."
08:52
Well, I think that should be the minimum.
08:55
How about a place of healing,
08:58
of learning,
09:01
and even opportunity?
09:03
Americans and Europeans
09:08
have the impression that proportionally
09:10
huge numbers of refugees are coming
09:14
to their country,
09:16
but the reality is
09:18
that 86 percent, the vast majority of refugees,
09:20
are living in the developing world,
09:24
in countries struggling with their own insecurity,
09:26
with their own issues of helping their own populations
09:31
and poverty.
09:35
So wealthy countries in the world should recognize
09:37
the humanity and the generosity of the countries
09:40
that are hosting so many refugees.
09:44
And all countries should make sure that no one
09:48
fleeing war and persecution
09:52
arrives at a closed border.
09:54
(Applause)
09:58
Thank you.
10:01
But there is something more that we can do
10:06
than just simply helping refugees survive.
10:08
We can help them thrive.
10:12
We should think of refugee camps and communities
10:16
as more than just temporary population centers
10:19
where people languish
10:23
waiting for the war to end.
10:25
Rather, as centers of excellence,
10:28
where refugees can triumph over their trauma
10:32
and train for the day that they can go home
10:36
as agents of positive change
10:39
and social transformation.
10:42
It makes so much sense,
10:47
but I'm reminded of the terrible war in Somalia
10:49
that has been raging on for 22 years.
10:53
And imagine living in this camp.
10:57
I visited this camp.
11:00
It's in Djibouti, neighboring Somalia,
11:01
and it was so remote
11:03
that we had to take a helicopter to fly there.
11:06
It was dusty and it was terribly hot.
11:08
And we went to visit a school
11:12
and started talking to the children,
11:14
and then I saw this girl across the room
11:16
who looked to me to be the same age
11:18
as my own daughter, and I went up and talked to her.
11:20
And I asked her the questions
11:24
that grown-ups ask kids,
11:25
like, "What is your favorite subject?"
11:27
and, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
11:29
And this is when her face turned blank,
11:32
and she said to me,
11:35
"I have no future.
11:37
My schooling days are over."
11:40
And I thought, there must be some misunderstanding,
11:43
so I turned to my colleague
11:44
and she confirmed to me
11:47
there is no funding for secondary education
11:49
in this camp.
11:51
And how I wished at that moment
11:54
that I could say to her,
11:55
"We will build you a school."
11:57
And I also thought, what a waste.
12:00
She should be and she is
12:04
the future of Somalia.
12:07
A boy named Jacob Atem
12:11
had a different chance, but not before he experienced
12:15
terribly tragedy.
12:18
He watched — this is in Sudan —
12:20
as his village — he was only seven years old —
12:22
burned to the ground, and he learned
12:25
that his mother and his father
12:27
and his entire family
12:29
were killed that day.
12:31
Only his cousin survived, and the two of them
12:33
walked for seven months —
12:35
this is boys like him —
12:37
chased and pursued by wild
animals and armed gangs,
12:39
and they finally made it to refugee camps
12:42
where they found safety,
12:44
and he would spend the next seven years
12:46
in Kenya in a refugee camp.
12:48
But his life changed
12:51
when he got the chance to be resettled
12:54
to the United States,
12:56
and he found love in a foster family
12:58
and he was able to go to school,
13:01
and he wanted me to share with you
13:03
this proud moment
13:05
when he graduated from university.
13:07
(Applause)
13:09
I spoke to him on Skype the other day,
13:15
and he was in his new university in Florida
13:18
pursuing his Ph.D. in public health,
13:23
and he proudly told me how he was able to raise
13:26
enough funds from the American public
13:29
to establish a health clinic back in his village
13:31
back home.
13:36
So I want to take you back to Hany.
13:39
When I told him I was going to have the chance
13:42
to speak to you here on the TED stage,
13:45
he allowed me to read you a poem
13:47
that he sent in an email to me.
13:50
He wrote:
13:53
"I miss myself,
13:57
my friends,
13:59
times of reading novels or writing poems,
14:02
birds and tea in the morning.
14:06
My room, my books, myself,
14:11
and everything that was making me smile.
14:16
Oh, oh, I had so many dreams
14:22
that were about to be realized."
14:26
So here is my point:
14:31
Not investing in refugees
14:33
is a huge missed opportunity.
14:35
Leave them abandoned,
14:41
and they risk exploitation and abuse,
14:43
and leave them unskilled and uneducated,
14:48
and delay by years the return
14:51
to peace and prosperity in their countries.
14:54
I believe how we treat the uprooted
15:00
will shape the future of our world.
15:03
The victims of war can hold the keys
15:07
to lasting peace,
15:10
and it's the refugees
15:13
who can stop the cycle of violence.
15:15
Hany is at a tipping point.
15:18
We would love to help him go to university
15:21
and to become an engineer,
15:24
but our funds are prioritized for the basics in life:
15:27
tents and blankets and mattresses and kitchen sets,
15:31
food rations and a bit of medicine.
15:35
University is a luxury.
15:39
But leave him to languish in this muddy field,
15:42
and he will become a member
15:47
of a lost generation.
15:49
Hany's story is a tragedy,
15:52
but it doesn't have to end that way.
15:57
Thank you.
16:01
(Applause)
16:03

sponsored links

Melissa Fleming - Voice for refugees
As head of communications for the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees, Melissa Fleming sheds light on their devastating plight and remarkable resilience.

Why you should listen

Almost 60 million people in the world today have been forcefully displaced from their home - a level not seen since WWII. As many as four million Syrian refugees have sought refuge in neighboring countries. In Lebanon, half of these refugees are children; only 20 percent are in school. Melissa Fleming of the UN's refugee agency calls on all of us to make sure that refugee camps are healing places where people can develop the skills they'll need to rebuild their hometowns. Investing in this, she says, may well be the most effective relief effort there is. This inspires her and the teams at the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees to tell stories of the individuals who are displaced. 

sponsored links

If you need translations, you can install "Google Translate" extension into your Chrome Browser.
Furthermore, you can change playback rate by installing "Video Speed Controller" extension.

Data provided by TED.

This website is owned and operated by Tokyo English Network.
The developer's blog is here.