World Refugee Day was established by the United Nations to honor the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homes under threat of persecution, conflict and violence.
To get involved and learn more, visit www.unrefugees.org.
“I told myself then, 'Never forget this day,'" Mohammed Alyaqubi tells me while I eat dinner with him and his mother, Khalida, my friends who are refugees from Iraq. "I came home from school – I remember what I was wearing. I threw my bag down and the phone rang. ‘Congratulations – on June 11 you have a flight to the U.S.’ We started dancing, turned on the radio, Mom cried."
Khalida’s oldest son, Ali, was a doctor in Baghdad. The U.S. Army brought medicines to his hospital and Ali’s manager asked him to help translate for them. Shortly after that, a parking security guard showed him his name on a list of people. The three people on the list above Ali’s name had already been killed in the past week, including his manager. He left work, the family stayed in their apartment for a few days, and Khalida immediately went to Jordan to find accommodations.
While they were planning to leave, another incident happened with Mohammed as he played outside with his friends. A group of men and boys with guns and knives chased them into the apartment. The gang waited outside, finally leaving six hours later, threatening to kill him and his family if they saw them again
The next morning, they left everything and headed for Amman. The four years in Jordan were hard. They paid the government to live there, felt unwelcomed, and bore the anger of the Jordanians at the influx of refugees. They were not allowed to work. They were illegal. But at least they got out of Iraq.
The process to gain refugee status took two years and three months, they all tell me, almost simultaneously, as if they were counting. And this is a relatively short wait for many refugee families I know.
While the rest of us eat the delicious food Khalida has been teaching me to prepare, Ali heads to work. He is now a doctor at Maricopa Medical Center in Arizona, where both of our families live. Arizona makes the news so often with its anti-immigration policies and attitudes, I was surprised to learn that Phoenix is one of the top ten “gateway cities” for receiving refugees from around the world.
And receiving people’s stories, around a storycircle or a dinner table, has become increasingly more important to me as I listen to people from so many different walks of life who have been the “stranger in a strange land” in some way or another.
Mohammed thinks for a minute, between bites of squash in mint yoghurt sauce. And then says, “I could believe that this is heaven. We’re the lucky ones.”
Khalida asks me if I like the food she’s sharing with me, then says, “For the first time in a long time, I feel like a real human.”
Watch Mohammed’s story:
To watch more stories told and created by refugees, visit our StoryCenter YouTube channel.