June 20 is World Refugee Day, a day to recognize the strength and courage of those forced to flee their home countries. Trying to escape conflict or persecution, refugees seek safety across borders and often experience tremendous difficulties. Families can spend years — or decades — in limbo as they search for a better life.
The American Red Cross helps refugees in the United States and around the globe. Refugees are not just the recipients of humanitarian aid and comfort — they’re the providers of it, too. They are the first to step up, take action and help their communities get through tough times.
“The one thing I can do right now is help out,” said Jamal*, a teenager whose hands and sleeves are covered in soap suds after more than an hour of washing dishes.
Jamal, originally from Somalia, is one of 300+ people aboard the Ocean Viking — a rescue ship in the Mediterranean Sea operated by the Red Cross Red Crescent and SOS Mediterranean. The passengers are men, women and children who escaped Libya and were rescued from flimsy boats and rafts on rough seas.
The American Red Cross deployed four crisis responders to the Ocean Viking, caring for families seeking safety and talking to people like Jamal.
“Really I am so thankful. You rescued us from the sea. You rescued us from a very dark place. At least now, I can help too,” he said.
Every morning, Jamal wakes up ready to help serve breakfast aboard the ship. He sets up the folding table and fills the dish tubs with soap and water. While families eat biscuits, breakfast bars and tea, Jamal washes teacups and refills stocks. The line feels never-ending, and people want their caffeine. He has to work fast, and he does — with humor and a smile under his facemask.
He doesn’t need to pitch in — the teams working onboard are in charge of serving breakfast — but it adds routine to his day and a sense of community.
For now, Jamal is relieved to be part of this floating village. He suffered unimaginable pain over the past years. In Somalia, he lost seven of his family members to violence in mere minutes. He fled conflict there but ended up in Libya — another country torn apart by war. Like many of the people on board the ship, Jamal was kidnapped and tortured by militias in Libya before escaping.
When Jamal describes his journey, he recounts that fleeing was not an easy choice. He climbed aboard a crowded, rickety boat in hope of reaching somewhere safer. Once at sea, he and his fellow passengers managed to evade the militias and make it to international waters. Still, it was clear this boat would not make it to land on its own. In the pitch-black night, its passengers panicked but kept the hope alive.
Against the odds, the Ocean Viking crew found their boat, distributed life jackets, and brought Jamal and all the other passengers on board to safety. Relieved, but also deeply in pain, Jamal showed his torture wounds and said that he’d rather end his own life rather than go back to Libya. Thankfully, now that he made it out he will never have to return there.
Red Crosser Adam Zaro served on the ship and says it is estimated that 3,000 people died last year trying to cross the Mediterranean. “So many people had to overcome trials and desperation only to then face dying at sea.”
For Zaro, the ultimate goal is to save lives and instill dignity in those who have suffered. “We provide relief and health services directly to these people when they need it most,” he said.
Jamal doesn’t know what the future holds but in this moment he can take a sigh of relief knowing that he’s safe. “Thank you for being here for people like us,” he said.
To learn more about how the American Red Cross helps refugees like Jamal, all around the world, visit here.
*Name changed to protect the identity of a minor.
About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides comfort to victims of disasters; supplies about 40% of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; distributes international humanitarian aid; and supports veterans, military members and their families. The Red Cross is a nonprofit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to deliver its mission. For more information, please visit redcross.org or cruzrojaamericana.org, or visit us on Twitter at @RedCross.
Support all the urgent humanitarian needs of the American Red Cross.
Find a drive and schedule a blood donation appointment today.
Take a class and be ready to respond if an emergency strikes.