Refugees are ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances. This year World Refugee Day (WRD), which is commemorated globally each year on 20 June, draws attention to the resilience of refugees and the challenges they are living through away from their home countries. The Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has plenty of experience in responding effectively to refugee emergencies, and has been hosting one of the largest refugee populations in the world for over three decades. Iran hosts 979,410 registered refugees: 951,142 Afghans and 28,268 Iraqis, 97% of whom reside in urban areas.
Refugees have had to escape war and run for their lives — leaving everything behind. Families forced to flee once lived ordinary lives: working, studying, playing and dreaming. They still dream of going back to their normal lives. One of the durable solutions for refugees is to return to their home country in dignity when conditions are conductive for a safe and voluntary return in a dignified manner. Between 2002 and December 2014, UNHCR assisted some 920,000 Afghan refugees return home voluntarily.
As WRD coincides this year with the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, UNHCR and BAFIA held a number of events throughout the country over the preceding week. On 15 June, as the centrepiece of UNHCR and BAFIA’s WRD plans, they hosted an event in the Bahman Cultural Centre in Tehran for representatives of the international community, partners and refugees. The theme centred on education and sports – important platforms to connect refugees with the host community. The Director General of the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants’ Affairs, Mr. Mohammadifar, noted that, “It is our hope that the education and skills [with reference to livelihood] they learn in Iran will further enable and empower refugees in reconstructing their homeland and helping their own peoples once conditions are conducive for their return and they opt to repatriate to Afghanistan. Meeting the cultural needs of refugees is just as important as their physical, emotional and intellectual needs.”
The event included an inspirational discussion on achievements in sports by Afghan refugees in the country, such as a young Afghan refugee woman who has achieved prominence as a player and coach in women’s football. She reflected that through sports she has been able to contribute to projecting a positive image of Afghan refugees in the country. Also on the panel was a refugee who has been coaching marital arts for 20 years, and has been an official representative of the Afghanistan National Kickboxing Federation for the past 2 years. He paid special thanks to the Ministry of Sports and Youth in Iran and the various sports federations in the country that have promoted inclusion and welcomed the participation of Afghan athletes and trainers. In his view, their accomplishments in competition are an achievement for Afghanistan and Iran alike. The Afghan football team of Tehran province, which ranked second in the countrywide football competition in Esfahan in February, later took the stage and their coach, Mr. Amirian, who also coaches Iran’s national football team for the blind, reflected that, “Sports are a way to bring these people [refugees] out of their solitude and corners of their houses; to empower them morally and bring them back to society.”
UNHCR’s Representative in Iran, Sivanka Dhanapala, praised the Government and People of Iran for their continued hospitality and generosity towards refugees, and thanked the international community, UN sister agencies and NGOs for their continued support and solidarity with refugees. The Representative closed with a poem from the famous Iranian poetNezaami, “There is much hope in hopelessness; for at the end of the dark night, there is light.”
In other events around the country, on 11 June in Esfahan UNHCR’s Voluntary Repatriation Centre (under the Field Unit Tehran) held musical and theatrical performances, along with an art exhibition featuring the work of young refugees. On 14 June, Sub-Office Mashhad and BAFIA followed with a refugee cultural exhibition, with booths showcasing traditional attire, musical performances, and discussions among refugee leaders. On 15 June, Sub-Office Shiraz and BAFIA arranged free access with the support of the municipality for 500 children (300 Afghans and 200 Iranians) to an amusement park in Shiraz for the day, where they participated in painting activities and members of civil society organized face painting activities and provided balloon animals, drinks and snacks. Also, Sub-Office Shiraz and BAFIA on 16 June organized a kite-flying marathon in Bushehr for 100 children (mainly Afghan refugees and some Iranians). Finally, on 16 June, Sub-Office Kerman and BAFIA hosted a photography exhibition showcasing the resilience of refugees, live performances from local refugee performers, a handicraft fair and the recitation of award-winning poems and prose.