As I listened to CNBC this morning and learned that today, June 20th, is World Refugee Day, I thought about the number of children we have in our school who are former refugees. One little girl in particular, Angela, is a remarkable story of courage and resilience. Her mother fled her native country because her daughter was unable to get the care and the education and support that she needed. She spent two years in a refugee camp prior to being relocated to Erie. Within two weeks, she was enrolled in our school, began receiving therapies, and soon had a wheelchair. Almost a full school year later, she uses a walker throughout our halls, speaks fluent English, and is preparing to move on to public school. As I look at Angela, I only wish that all refugee children with disabilities could have as a bright a future as she!
Sadly, over 60 million people around the world are now displaced from their homes, having been forced to flee from war, persecution and disaster. While exact statistics on how many of these individuals have disabilities are hard to find, we know that 1 in 66 children have autism so we can estimate the prevalence of children with autism in these refugee populations.
As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees described in stark terms in 2009, the reality for most displaced persons with disabilities is dire: “Too often invisible, too often overlooked, refugees with disabilities are among the most isolated, socially excluded and marginalized of all displaced populations.”
Fortunately, over the last several years the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), working with the Women’s Refugee Commission and other partners, has developed new policies and tools designed to improve protection and services for displaced persons with disabilities. These promising first steps give me hope that one day all children with disabilities may be given the opportunity to develop to their fullest potential!