On World Refugee Day, we had the opportunity to attend an event hosted by the UNHCR at Alliance Francais with Operation ASHA’s Director of Training, Dr. Smita Agrawal. We were excited to attend the event both to show Operation ASHA’s continued support of UNHCR programs and solidarity with the refugee community in Delhi. Operation ASHA has worked with the UNHCR in the past, adapting their eCompliance software to assist in the efficient distribution of supplies to people living in refugee camps.
The event was designed to give visitors a glimpse into the refugee experience from multiple perspectives. When we first arrived at the gallery in Alliance Francais, we were greeted with a vibrant collection of photographs showing many facets of life as a refugee in Delhi, and the work the UNHCR does to support it. We saw photographs of many aspects of the Delhi refugee community — children attending school, a young man at work in a shoe store, young women embroidering colorful garments, and a family gathered together. These images and their captions taught us not only about the UNHCR’s work (improving educational access for refugee children, supporting refugees in skill-development and employment, and helping families adjust to life in a new location), but also about what refugees bring to society. Each photograph showed refugees in a positive light, allowing observers to view them and their work as valuable, rather than the often negative portrayal of refugees in the media.
After we saw all the photographs, we met refugees from Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria, and Tibet. They shared traditional foods and friendly conversation with us, and some were even selling crafts they created with UNHCR support. Through food and conversation, we were able to engage with people and culture, rather than the often distant idea of “refugees,” and we were even able to buy a few handmade crafts to support their businesses.
Following the exhibition, we filed into the Alliance Francais auditorium with the other guests for the second part of the event. Local UNHCR officials introduced the Chief of Mission for UNHCR India, Yasuko Shimizu who gave a speech about the refugee experience in India. She talked about India as a country that is supportive and welcoming to refugees, both in its policy and in the general attitude of the public. She went on to talk about the importance of understanding refugee communities as valuable and discussing the UNHCR’s goal for World Refugee Day — convincing more people to stand with refugees. After her speech, the UNHCR welcomed two poets to speak: a young woman who is an Afghan refugee, and a member of the UNHCR office in Delhi. The first poet shared a poem she had written about her own story as a refugee from Afghanistan, living in Delhi. Her poem gave us yet another perspective of the refugee experience, honestly communicating both the hardships and hopefulness that shape her life. The second poet spoke from the perspective of refugees she had worked with in Delhi, giving a voice to those whose stories would otherwise go untold.
Following the poetry readings, the UNHCR hosted a screening of the documentary film, “A Syrian Love Story”. This movie followed a family from Syria for 5 years, giving us an extended and intimate glimpse into the experience of Syrian refugees. We watched this family move from their hometown in Syria to Lebanon, then on into France as the war in Syria progressed. The movie highlighted the strain such moves put on families, and that relationships and mental health suffer even when refugees escape from physical danger. “A Syrian Love Story” showed the struggles refugees face and challenged another stereotype — that the refugee experience ends, and all issues are resolved upon resettlement.
As a whole, the event gave us a glimpse into the refugee experience from many perspectives, and introduced us to the vibrant refugee communities right here in Delhi.
— Hema Venkat and Caroline George