Feb 28, 2019

There’s a huge tendency for people to think of progress in a linear fashion. That’s why, when a huge scandal breaks out, we see people speak up to say, “It’s X year already and this is still a problem?” Sometimes it’s justified, sometime it isn’t. It’s like when Nadine Lustre, when asked if she was living with her boyfriend and love team partner James Reid, exasperatedly replied, “Guys, it’s 2018.”

Sadly though, progress doesn’t work that way. History works in a circular fashion: Movements will regress and move forward and change or die out. You can tell off someone who excuses himself (and let’s face it, it’s almost always a himself) by saying, “I’m a product of my time,” by reminding them of the stalwarts of activism of his generation, people who were also products of their time. But sadly, the opposite is also true. As much as I love my generation for being socially aware, it is true that we also saw through the rise of men’s rights activism, neo-Nazis (it’s weird how many Filipinos are into that), and other hateful stuff. Progress isn’t linear.  If it was, we wouldn’t have a huge refugee crisis in the 21st century. But we do.

In fact, if there’s anything we can ascribe a linear progress to, it’s the worsening of the crisis. There were more people displaced in 2016 compared to after the second world war. Every minute, 24 people are forced to leave their homes just to reach safety. Every year, refugees around the world walk a cumulative two billion kilometers for safety. The distance between the earth and the sun is only 133 million kilometers! If that number doesn’t seem real to you, if it doesn’t seem correct, then you’re right. Two billion is a conservative estimate. Refugees went past it in 2017.

This is not okay.

Earlier this month, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) appointed Atom Araullo as a goodwill ambassador. He’s the first Philippine ambassador for UNHCR, which is the United Nation’s arm specifically meant for the protection of refugees. His conferment came two years after he first became a UNHCR “high profile supporter and advocate” in 2017, using his platform as a broadcast journalist to lend his voice to the refugees and after visiting the refugees in Mindanao, Jordan, and Bangladesh.

Aside from giving them shelter and protection, what are some of the things that UNHCR does to help refugees and internally displaced people (IDP)? One simple thing that the UNHCR has been doing for the past few years is to give evacuees and these internally displaced people identification. As simple as that,” Araullo told Nolisoli.ph. Speaking on the martial law in Mindanao, he notes that many of the IDPs are “especially vulnerable to random harassment. There are stories of people just going to the grocery and having to prove their identity when they’re confronted by security forces. Just having an ID is a huge thing already.”

He also noted that the UNHCR encourages the affected people to be involved in a community. “You do see a lot of latent compassion, a lot of understanding and solidarity,” he said about the communities that have taken in the IDPs. “It’s just when they get to put in a position of insecurity as well that a problem arises.” The UNHCR does its best to ensure that things like that wouldn’t happen.

At his conferment, the UNHCR launched their 2 Billion Kilometers to Safety campaign in the country. It’s a solidarity movement that highlights the dangerous journey that refugees and IDPs are forced to make, the aforementioned two billion kilometer trek. It encourages people around the world to also take a two billion kilometer trek with the refugees, to feel for themselves what it’s like to be in their shoes. If you need to visualize that journey, you can visit the campaign’s webpage to see the refugees’ stories about their days-long exodus to safety. (If you like documentaries, you can also check out Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow, which follows the intensely human narratives of people from 23 countries all trying to reach safety. There’s also the movie Capernaum, which stars a young refugee. It was nominated for an Academy Award!)

Taking part in the campaign is simple. You just need to sign up and log in the kilometers you walk everyday. If you have a fitness app that collects the kilometers you walk, you can connect the app to the campaign so it’ll automatically input the information for you. You can also donate to UNHCR—they’re trying to rise P795 million for the refugees so they could immediately give them the life-saving support they need within the year.

Since 2 Billion Kilometers to Safety is a solidarity campaign, Nolisoli.ph asked Atom Araullo his thoughts on people who’d dismiss the campaign as being purely symbolic. “You have to start from somewhere,” he said. “A lot of times, it can get overwhelming because there’s so many problems and you’re just this tiny individual and you don’t know what to do. I think it’s rather empowering to be able to do something with a simple act, feeling that you’re in solidarity with the people going through the worst thing in their lives.”

He also pointed out: “Who knows where it can go from there? Maybe it can lead you into a situation where you can take a more active role, maybe it can join young people to join agencies like the UNHCR, maybe they could form their own organization. As you learn more about the issue and dig deeper, this more nuanced appreciation of why these things are happening will also affect the decisions you make in life, the career choices you make, our political decisions as well, how we vote in elections. So all of these things together, it’s important to not dismiss these small acts because every little thing counts. And you know, we’re not just stopping at two billion kilometers. It’s a whole range of actions that, taken together, I think is very powerful.”

To learn more about the campaign, you can check out UNHCR’s website or the 2 Billion Kilometers to Safety campaign’s own site.


Featured photo courtesy of Unsplash

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TAGS: 2 billion kilometers to safety atom araullo i step with the refugees internally displaced people nolisoli.ph refugees UNHCR united nations United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees