Bangkok, 28 June 2013 – June 20th may not be a well known date outside the humanitarian community but it marks the day, eleven years ago, when the United Nations General Assembly commemorated the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, a document created to protect the millions of displaced people worldwide. It also coincides with Africa’s Refugee Day, as designated by the Organization for African Unity (OAU).
Today in Bangkok it is estimated that there are a few thousand refugees and asylum seekers from all over the world. Recognition of their simultaneous resilience and vulnerability is fundamental to accompaniment and assistance during their time in Bangkok. To show appreciation for their strength to face difficult ordeals, as well as to provide families with time to get to know one another, on 22 June 2013, JRS Thailand hosted a Sports Day for 60 refugees and asylum seekers from more than 13 different countries including Pakistan, Syria, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sri Lanka.
“The children had so much fun,” said Abbas* the father of an 8-year old boy who attended with his wife and brothers and their families.
The children played indoor games to music, such as musical chairs, dancing, and relay races, with cookies and lollipops as prizes for the most speedy, rhythmic, or strategic children. Adults spouted off limericks in the famous “telephone game” of whispering messages down a row only for the last person to announce an often distorted version of the original.
“Different accents and unique cultural interpretations of the expressions made for an amusing and entertaining combination. ‘Sally sells sea shells by the sea shore’ was soon transformed to ‘Shelly sells t-shirts in the shorts,'”said Kate Smyth, a participant in the game and JRS Thailand legal advisor.
“We like to create opportunities for people where they can feel a sense of normalcy in their lives,” said Zarah Alih, the JRS Thailand Urban Refugee Programme’s psychosocial counselor. “They have lost everything in a shockingly short amount of time. This event provides a brief interim of light-heartedness and the feeling of being part of a community again,” she explained.
Parents danced with their children and had to stand on a piece of newspaper when the music stopped, after which point they folded the newspaper in half. The piece grew smaller and smaller until parents were literally holding up their children in acrobatic positions in order to fit their foot on the paper.
“I lost because my feet are too big!” laughed Abbas.
At noon, after a delicious lunch of Pakistani chicken cooked by some of the refugees, many children took to playing badminton, while others roamed around the gardens. David, a toddler from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was lethargic and coughing when he first arrived but after the excitement of the games, he perked up and began to play with the other children, running after them and throwing balls at them while shrieking delightedly.
“He likes playing with all the others but he can be naughty,” said Karena, his mother.
Today, on June 20th, we are reminded that while light-hearted fun is good for the soul, asylum seeker and refugee children need to go to school where they can learn while playing with others; adults need to be able to work so they can provide for their families; and above all, everyone has the right to be legally present in a country while seeking asylum and to start new lives when their past ones have been taken by war or persecution.
Dana MacLean, JRS Asia Pacific Communications Officer
· *For reasons of confidentiality and protection names used are not the real names of the refugees