Report by Ibrahim Dabo (@IbDabo)
UN refugee agency, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), on Nov. 15 commemorated its 60th anniversary at a ceremony held in New York City’s Plaza Hotel. The celebration brought together leaders and guests who play a leading advocacy role on refugee issues.
Model and Designer Alek Wek gave the keynote. She spoke about her experiences growing up in her native country, South Sudan, in a town called Wau, and how the war affected her and her family.
Wek said hope played a vital role during those tough times when everything else seemed lost.
“It wasn’t very easy,” said Wek. “It was very tough and we finally ended up going to seek refuge in London.”
She talked about her modeling career and how she is using her celebrity status to raise more awareness about some of the troubling circumstances refugees face.
“The most incredible and very humbling thing my career has given me is the voice to advocate for refugees. I truly believe that collectively, as people, we can make change,” Wek said.
“I’ve always stressed the importance of what the refugees are going through,” she said, citing examples she went through during the war in South Sudan such as being hungry, homeless, living in the bush and losing her father.
“I’ve seen firsthand what UNHCR really does in the ground,” she said, commending the refugee agency for putting the lives on their personnel in harm’s way to help save another fellow human being.
George Okoth-Obbo, Director of UNHCR Africa Bureau talked about some of the challenges some 2.6 million refugees in 37 African countries face as they look up to UNHCR in many different ways for help.
“Their needs can be as basic as safety from risk and abuse and exploitation,” Okoth-Obbo said.
He added that food, shelter, water, healthcare and education are among the basic needs refugees lack and cited Somalia, Ivory Coast, Sudan as few countries where there has been major refugee needs this year.
“Life and livelihood can be recreated, and hope can be reached for and realized,” Okoth-Obbo said. He urged people “to be energized by action to make a difference.”
“That is the critical factor in all of what we do,” he said, calling for support to UNHCR and its partners.
Omar Bah, a journalist from The Gambia who arrived in the U.S. in 2007 as a refugee said, “It’s such a great gathering tonight and I’m happy to be a part of it. There is a lot of diversity in the hall: refugees, women, celebrities to name a few.”
In August, Bah attended the UNHCR Refugee Congress in Washington, D.C. where he said, “We talked about refugee settlement, cultural orientation, skills development and housing, rights of refugees in the U.S. and how to improve the funding on resettlement in various states.”
Another refugee active with the UNHCR, Pedro Ndong, hails from Equatorial Guinea. He said, “Being at this event tonight means a lot to me. There’s diversity and it feels good to meet with people from all over the world.”