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'Life in a camp is not a life': U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees comes to UNC

UN High Commissioner.jpeg
Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Comissioner for Refugees, came to UNC on Sept. 21 to discuss the global refugee crisis.

He has led emergency operations in Kenya, Benin, Ghana, Liberia, Central Africa, Yemen and Afghanistan.  He has conducted refugee and humanitarian work for over 30 years. And on Thursday, Sept. 19, Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, came to UNC to discuss the global refugee crisis. 

Grandi responded to questions posed by Susan Stigant, a UNC graduate and the director of Africa Programs at the United States Institute of Peace. Grandi discussed his career, trends within refugee movements and ways to address complex issues surrounding displaced persons.

Grandi said short-term responses to refugee crises are not enough.

“Food, shelter, medicine: very important, very vital. We need to continue to do that, but they’re not quite enough,” Grandi said. “We realized – for example, in the Syria situation – that there were millions of children that were missing out on their education because these humanitarian investments prioritized the life-saving sectors and neglected what was longer-term.”

Grandi also recommended that refugees be welcomed into local communities. He said support efforts should help these communities’ health, education and job systems accommodate refugees.

“We understand that in the past it was practical to put refugees in a camp, assist them there – waiting for them to go back,” Grandi said. “But when they have to be there 15 years, 20 years – that’s not a life. Life in a camp is not a life.”

Grandi said refugees are too often scapegoated and over-politicized. Part of his work is reminding the public that refugee crises are also about individual people.

During a trip sponsored by UNC Hillel, Sophomore Sheel Patel spoke to Palestinian refugees in Jerusalem.  He expressed concerns about global prejudice toward refugees.

“If UNC and other institutions around the world don’t help educate the populace, then we’re going to see even more xenophobia, even more in-fighting and hatred,” Patel said. “And the best way to fight ignorance and hatred is with education and knowledge.”

Although Patel is glad UNC is hosting talks like these, he thinks the University should be doing more.

“Put this information in front of the eyes of people who would normally not see it on this campus,” Patel said.  “Because a lot of this stuff is self-segregating.”

Grandi spoke about xenophobia in an interview after the event.

“What I always warn politicians is that language that is negative or aggressive in respect of refugees or migrants or minorities or foreigners backfires in the end,” Grandi said. “You may gain a bit of consensus temporarily, but in the end, it creates in society divisions and tensions that can really spiral out of control.”

Grandi also recommended that students who hope to work for the United Nations start small.

“It’s very laudable; it’s very positive that many people say ‘Oh, I want to work for the United Nations,'" Grandi said. “Don’t have this as your first step. The United Nations, getting to this complex work requires a bit more experience. Start from the grassroots, start in your own community, volunteer for an NGO, and if you are a little bit older and you have the possibility of doing it, volunteer to work overseas.”

Grandi’s early work experience includes working for refugee-focused NGOs in Italy, his home country, and Thailand.  

First-year David Snider attended the talk because he is passionate about global issues, particularly the problems faced by refugees and migrants. As a high school senior, Snider led an initiative to address the unique health needs of his neighborhood’s Chinese-speaking community.

For Snider, Grandi’s life is inspiring.

“It was so encouraging to see how he was able to go from that to where he was able to make such an impact on the world,” Snider said. “And so for me, as I consider perhaps following in a similar path, it’s just really encouraging to know that in the little things you can work toward bigger things so that in the end you can make a difference for people.” 


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