While at the World Refugee Day event at National Geographic in Washington, DC earlier this week, I realized how fortunate I am to have a home and all the basic necessities I need to live my life. I cannot fathom what it would have been like to be in the shoes of Rose Mapendo, a refugee mother of 10 who was imprisoned during the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Rose’s husband was executed at the prison and she was left with her children and the other widows and orphans who were fighting to survive. Each day she watched women and children led away by guards and she knew they would not return to their cells. She took care of the orphans and watched her friends die of hunger and sorrow. She said she believed the men were the lucky ones because they were killed quickly; it was the women and children who were left to fight for survival and their right to return home.
While in prison, Rose learned she was pregnant and gave birth to twins on the cold concrete floor of her cell surrounded by children. To help her forgive her captors, she did the unthinkable and named her babies after the guards. With the help of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and others, Rose was able to leave the DRC and is now living in Arizona with her children. She said she can never forget the people she left behind in her country and has started a non-profit to help others. For her work, she was awarded the Humanitarian of the Year Award.
During the event, NBC News’ Ann Curry, who filled in for CNN’s Anderson Cooper, directed everyone to the screen where we could see the children at the recently renamed Obama School located within the Djabal refugee camp in Chad. A 13-year-old boy thanked everyone for their help and said what he wanted most was to go home.
Back in D.C., UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie recounted her recent trips with the UN Refugee Agency and spoke about a pregnant woman she met in a temporary camp in Afghanistan (Afghan.) The woman invited her into her home to have tea, the last cup she had left. Jolie noted that it is often those who have the least to give who give the most. While seated on small tattered rugs on the dirt floor, the pregnant woman introduced Angelina to her young son, who looked sad and weary. The mother said the young boy asked for more food, and it broke her heart to tell him there wasn’t any left. Jolie also remembered an 8-year-old girl who saw her family killed before her eyes before escaping with her younger brother. She said the young girl had a depth of strength that she will never know. Jolie said the men, women, and children she has met in the camps have showed her how to be brave and how to be a better mother.
UNHCR High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, and Acting Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration Samuel M. Witten also spoke during the event and reminded us that World Refugee Day is a time to remember refuges and honor their resilience. Last year, the United States contributed $500 million to UNHCR.
While at the event, I felt hope for the families who had made it safely to refugee camps throughout the world, and especially in Africa. While the stories are overwhelming and the situations are scary, the UN, charity groups, the U.S. government, and individuals are helping families start a new life in unfamiliar places. As Nothing But Nets Executive Director Elizabeth Gore said in her remarks, we as individuals, can support UNHCR to help them provide families with the tools they need to survive. Through Nothing But Nets, we can give $10 to provide life-saving nets that prevent malaria-carrying mosquitoes from biting at night. If you have a moment, consider making a donation to provide hope for a healthy future.
As Jolie said, we must remember that refugees aren’t numbers; they are mothers, fathers, daughters and sons…they are survivors and the most impressive people she has ever met.