World Refugee Day: The world pays tribute to refugees with a rich mix of events

UNHCR chief António Guterres marks World Refugee Day by taking breakfast with former refugees in Chicago, while millions of others also pay tribute to the forcibly displaced.

GENEVA, June 20 (UNHCR) - UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres marked World Refugee Day by taking breakfast with former refugees at an Ethiopian restaurant in Chicago, while millions of others also paid tribute this Saturday to the 42 million forcibly displaced people around the globe.

The breakfast was hosted by resettled refugees and held at the Ethiopian Diamond Restaurant, which is owned by a former refugee. Also present were Congresswoman Jan Shakowski, who represents the Democratic Party in Illinois, and former refugees from Liberia, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Bhutan.

"World Refugee Day is about giving a wider audience a better understanding of what it means to be a refugee," said Guterres. "What better place to mark it than, Chicago, which has one of the United States' - and the world's - most successful resettlement programmes. Refugees truly feel welcomed here."

Meanwhile, award-winning American actress Angelina Jolie, one of several UNHCR Goodwill Ambassadors to take part in World Refugee day events this year, called on people to remember refugees. "They deserve our respect. Please do not forget them," she said in a special public service announcement.

World Refugee Day is about giving a wider audience a better understanding of what it means to be a refugee.

High Commissioner António Gutteres

With "Real People, Real Needs," as this year's global theme, UNHCR and its partners, including governments, donors, non-governmental organizations, Goodwill Ambassadors and refugees themselves, have been taking part in a wide range of activities all week long, including photography exhibitions, film festivals, lectures, panel discussions, puppet shows, food bazaars, tree planting, fashion shows, concerts and sports competitions.

There have also been quizzes, drawing and essay writing competitions, seminars, workshops, speeches, public awareness campaigns and poetry recitals. And for the first time, UNHCR arranged a live webcast from some of its overseas operations. The stream was due to run for 12 hours on Saturday, linking refugees in eastern Chad, internally displaced people in Colombia and UNHCR staff in Pakistan and Syria to the world. Viewers were able to put their questions to field staff and refugees through moderators in the United States.

It has become an annual tradition in some cities to light up historic buildings or monuments. The Colosseum in Rome, Canberra's old Parliament Building and the towering Jet d'Eau fountain in Geneva were all bathed in UN blue. This year they were joined by the Monument of Mother Georgia in Tbilisi.

The annual tribute to refugees and other forcibly displaced people began in the Pacific Ocean on Saturday. As the sun wended its way westwards, more and more people and countries joined in the celebrations.

In Australia, UNHCR hosted a special community gathering in the capital, Canberra. Former refugees from Myanmar and Africa shared their stories and culture, including music and dance at the event, which was attended by John Gibson, president of the Refugee Council of Australia, and other dignitaries.

To the north, in the Japanese capital of Tokyo, some 400 people attended UNHCR's packed World Refugee Day Symposium at the United Nations University building. It included speeches, a recital by actress and violinist Ikuko Kawai, and a presentation about the making of a popular TV series about a fictional UNHCR worker.

There were panel discussions and testimonies, while Akio Kanai, a Nansen Refugee Award winner who has donated spectacles to tens of thousands of displaced people, talked about a recent trip to Azerbaijan. Outside the high-rise building, a UNHCR family tent had been erected and UNHCR partners, including the government and humanitarian aid groups, helped spread awareness about refugee issues.

Young refugees from Burundi get ready to dance at the event in Nairobi.  © UNHCR/F Courbet

In Hong Kong, around 100 UNHCR supporters and staff members took in a special "Refugee Run" organized by the Crossroads Foundation, a locally based aid group and partner of the refugee agency. The run gives those taking part a simulation of life as a refugee. UNHCR and Crossroads are also co-presenting a week-long refugee film festival, which opens tomorrow.

Running seemed to be a popular WRD event in South Asia. UNHCR took part in a 10-kilometre mini marathon on the Jaffna Peninsula at the tip of northern Sri Lanka. Not so long ago this was a war zone, but on Saturday locals and foreigners came to enjoy themselves and remember the displaced in a country with an estimated 550,000 internally displaced people.

A tuk-tuk (auto rickshaw) equipped with speakers went ahead of the runners telling people about World Refugee Day and the races, which included a five-kilometre run for women. Locals gave runners water and cheered them on. The races were organized by the Refugee Rehabilitation Organization, a UNHCR partner, and local authorities. A musical chair contest and a tug of war were later held. Laughter filled the air after years of sorrow.

Hundreds of people, locals and refugees originating from Bhutan, also signed up for a WRD race Saturday in Damak, eastern Nepal. The event, which attracted a field of more than 1,800 people, was organized by local sports organizations with the help of UNHCR and Caritas-Nepal.

World Refugee Day was also widely celebrated in Africa, which has the world's largest proportion of forcibly displaced people. In Kenya, a big ceremony was held at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi, with refugees enthralling guests with performances of dance and music. The event began with a procession through the streets of the capital by refugees led by a police band.

In eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, refugees and internally displaced people took part in traditional dances, outdoor theatre, poetry reading and speeches at an event organized in Goma, capital of troubled North Kivu province. They urged the international community to help the hundreds of thousands of displaced people in the province.

Groovin: A group of Rwandan refugee women get into the mood and dance at the World Refugee Day in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo.  © UNHCR/D. Nthengwe

And in the UNHCR-run Djabal Refugee camp in eastern Chad, the biggest event of the day was UNHCR's pioneering live webcast. The live stream from Djabal, which is home to almost 17,000 refugees from Sudan's Darfur region, gave fascinating glimpses of camp life.

The feed included live footage of children at a camp primary school that they renamed Obama after US President Barack Obama won power last year. The event seemed at risk when the government ordered a mourning period for the death of a former Chad leader, which meant the postponement of most WRD activities. But UNHCR was given permission to go ahead with the webcast.

In the Middle East, a wide range of activities were organized on Saturday in the north, centre and south of Iraq. They included dancing, football matches, a handicraft exhibition and a photo exhibition. A big tent was set up at the Al Waleed camp, where many Palestinians live. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are internally displaced. UNHCR staff in Syria talked on the live webcast about their work helping some of the many Iraqi refugees in that country.

Over in Europe, the UNHCR office in Strasbourg formed a team with the Council of Europe's Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights and was taking part Saturday in the annual Council of Europe Inter-Agency Football Tournament. The joint team, Commissioners United, includes refugees and asylum-seekers living in Strasbourg.

To the south in the tiny principality of Monaco, an open-air exhibition of photographs and paintings of refugee women by artist and former leading long-distance yachtsman, Titouan Lamazou, opened Saturday at the Esplanade du Larvotto in Monte Carlo. Princess Stephanie of Monaco was due to visit it later Saturday.

Spain held its main WRD earlier this week, but the annual film festival, "Refugiados en el Cine," continued on Saturday in Madrid. It was opened on Thursday by UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Jesús Vázquez.

In Belgium, UNHCR and some of its partners called on more than 20 newspapers and magazines to mark World Refugee Day by dedicating cartoons to refugees. The media organizations agreed and the cartoons have been posted on a special website, which went on line on Saturday.

Countries in the Americas were just beginning to wake up when this article went to press. But a rich range of events were planned for Saturday. These included a film festival in the Brazilian capital, Brasilia, and a football tournament in Sao Paulo, including three refugees (a Colombian, a Palestinian and a Congolese) who play for professional team Brazsat.

In Toronto, Canada, UNHCR was due to hold a big programme of entertainment in collaboration with several partners. The day will include "Walk a Mile in a Refugee's Shoes" as well as a concert and interactive displays. Many talented artists have donated their time to the event. Canadian writer Austin Clarke will introduce the winners of the first UNHCR COSTI Refugees and Human Rights Poetry Contest.

Across South America in Ecuador, UNHCR is due to host events in eight cities. In Quito, the capital, there will be a cultural and trade fair in a popular park with the participation of Colombian refugees and Ecuadorean artisans. There will be similar events, as well as film festivals, academic presentations and photo exhibits, in Esmeraldas, San Lorenzo, Tulcán, Ibarra, Lago Agrio, Santo Domingo and Cuenca.

By Leo Dobbs in Geneva