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Embrace Our Shared Humanity This World Refugee Day

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Since the last World Refugee Day, we've seen an immense shift in the way we talk and think about refugees. While the crisis in Syria had been escalating for many years, a photograph of little Alan Kurdi on a beach in Turkey brought the immeasurable tragedy of the situation into clear focus.

While Canada has happily welcomed over 25,000 Syrian refugees in recent months, we have also witnessed extreme polarization on the refugee issue among our neighbours to the south and occasionally here in Canada, too. The enormity of the problem continues to grow to the point that we risk becoming numb to the seemingly endless images of overfilled -- or worse, over-turned -- ships in the Mediterranean.


Fleeing northern Syria, five year-old Darin waits on the Serbian border to cross into Croatia. (Photo: Plan International/Jodi Hiltonl)

Worse yet is the fact that the crisis in Syria is only the tip of the iceberg. Countries like Nigeria, Burundi and South Sudan are all experiencing separate yet dire situations that do not have the benefit of Syria's name recognition. Each refugee-producing situation is different and could be caused by a range of catalysts, including war, political unrest, terrorism or even climate change. However, within each situation, there is one constant: that the needs of girls consistently go unheard and unmet.

The conflicts and crises that cause refugee situations also impede the eradication of global poverty, making it even more difficult for people to improve their circumstances. This is clearly illustrated by the fact that 80 per cent of the countries that did not achieve the UN's Millennium Development Goals -- the world's quantified targets for addressing extreme poverty -- endured a recent conflict, a natural disaster or both. It's also important to underscore the fact that those most impacted by conflicts and crises are women, adolescents and children, especially girls. Not yet adults, adolescent girls still require support to enable them to continue to learn and grow. However, girls in crisis situations are often forced to grow up overnight as a result of sexual assault, rape, early marriage and pregnancy.


Burundian teenage girls in refugee reception centres and camps in Rwanda encounter many difficulties, but having little knowledge about their reproductive health makes their lives even harder. (Photo: Plan International)

Plan International is working to ensure that the needs of adolescent refugee girls are met and their voices are heard. In Tanzania, this means supporting Burundian refugees like 15-year-old Ndiyokubwayo, who fled her home in the middle of the night to escape brutal violence. She now lives in a refugee camp where she shares a family shelter with over 150 people -- which equates to more than two people per square metre.

Ndiyokubwayo faces a lack of privacy and poor sanitary conditions in the camp latrines, both of which can be challenging when managing menstruation. Plan International Tanzania distributes dignity kits, including soap, toilet paper, underwear, pads, and more to help girls overcome these issues. Plan also provides training on personal hygiene, which is especially important for girls reaching puberty in the camp. While daily struggles like queuing for food and hygiene supplies take up much of Ndiyokubwayo's time, she is hopeful that she'll be able to resume her studies soon so that she can start her own business when she gets older.

In addition to our work in Tanzania, the needs of adolescent girls are also a priority in Rwanda, where Burundian women and girls are provided support geared to their unique experiences, including a protected space for survivors of gender-based violence, as well as recently installed solar lights leading to the camp's toilets and shower rooms to reduce the number of violent incidents against girls and women. In Sudan, we're constructing gender-sensitive latrines so girls can attend school without worrying about managing their period or sexual assault.

Projects like these are just the beginning. We're working to ensure that the needs of adolescent girls are not only addressed, but also tracked, as part of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.


In Pibor, South Sudan, fighters ransacked the Plan-built and supported school, but the children still congregate at the site. (Photo: Plan International)

In the months since I joined Plan International Canada, my awareness of the enormity of the refugee crises around the world has expanded drastically. More than ever, I'm conscious of the fact that each crisis is made up of unique people like Ndiyokubwayo, with their own thoughts, dreams and aspirations. They are united beneath the label "refugee," but that is only one small component of their identity, signaling the instability that characterizes their daily lives and little else.

This World Refugee Day, I challenge all Canadians to recognize our shared humanity and contribute to creating a better world for people facing unthinkable circumstances, be it by donating to support this cause, sharing a message of support, or simply raising awareness of this issue with friends and family.

Together, we can start to turn the dial on this issue. We can help children and their families to find stability, security and safety. We can help them to dream again.

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