06/20/2014 01:05 EDT | Updated 08/20/2014 05:59 EDT

What Refugees Leave Behind When They Flee Their Homes

As we mark World Refugee Day, the latest figures indicate that more than 50-million human beings alive today have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Whether they're refugees, asylum-seekers, or people displaced within their own countries, these individuals had no choice but to leave the places they once held so dear.

Iraqi refugees from Mosul at Khazir refugee camp outside Irbil, 217 miles (350 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 12, 2014. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the al-Qaida breakaway group, on Monday and Tuesday took over much of Mosul in Iraq and then swept into the city of Tikrit further south. An estimated half a million residents fled Mosul, the economically important city. (AP Photo)

My sons have watched The Hobbit movies more times than I can count. They love the mythic adventure of a little man named Bilbo Baggins, who embarks on an unlikely mission to help a band of rough-and-ready dwarfs reclaim their mountain home. That mountain is now occupied by a ruthless dragon named Smaug, who sent the dwarf occupants fleeing in terror. The dwarves have spent many years wandering from place to place, thinking of nothing but the home that they've lost.

Bilbo Baggins wants to help the dwarves reclaim the home they've lost.

One scene in the movie brings tears to my eyes (to the chagrin of my boys, whose own eyes roll toward the ceiling). Bilbo, pulled into the dwarves' lengthy mission against his will, can't stop dreaming of his own little home, Bag End. Yet when fate provides him with a chance to escape, he voluntarily returns to the party.

"Look, I know you doubt me," he tells the dwarves, who are amazed at his return. "I know you always have. And you're right...I often think of Bag End. I miss my books, and my armchair, and my garden. See, that's where I belong, that's home. That's why I came back...'cause you don't have one, a home. It was taken from you. But I will help you get it back if I can."

Bilbo needs say no more before we understand why he's sticking around. The importance of home is difficult to put into words -- yet it's written on our hearts. And a home stolen is a crime that's hard to ignore. We can't walk away from people who have lost something to critical, so precious.

As we mark World Refugee Day, the latest figures indicate that more than 50-million human beings alive today have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Whether they're refugees, asylum-seekers, or people displaced within their own countries, these individuals had no choice but to leave the places they once held so dear.

The dragon that sent the dwarves in The Hobbit fleeing their home is a fictional one. But there are equally powerful threats at work in our world today. In an age where deadly weapons are cheaper and more accessible than ever before, it doesn't take breath of fire to clear a town of its people. The job can be effectively done with small arms, battle tanks, rockets or even chemical weapons.

When we read of people fleeing their homes in terror, we often hear the phrase "taking nothing but the clothes on their backs." But how many of us know what that really means? World Vision staff recently met Mary, a South Sudanese mother caring for her four children in a Kenyan refugee camp. She had fled an attack on her village one dark night, and months later, was still wearing nothing but her nightgown. There's nothing else. To wash and dry this thin garment, she must be naked. Think about how that would feel.

Mary gave birth to her youngest child on the way to this Kenyan refugee camp. She has found safety for her four children, but left many things behind.

Clothes aren't all that families leave behind, when forced to flee their homes. From the many stories shared by my World Vision colleagues working overseas, here's what else is lost:

  • Spouses. Mary's husband disappeared in the chaos the night the family was forced to flee. She has no idea whether he's alive, and at present, no way of finding out.
  • Children. In the panic and turmoil, children are often separated from their parents on the run. Unaccompanied children are extremely vulnerable to exploitation of all kinds, including sexual abuse and trafficking.
  • Homes and properties. To remain alive, families forced to flee must often say goodbye to those homes for good. They may have invested all they had in the land, a modest structure and its contents.
  • Livelihoods. You can't pack a vegetable garden, a herd of livestock, or a sewing machine. And it's unlikely that these things will be available if the family ever returns.
  • Schools. A school is a structure and the supplies that fill it, but also its teachers. Displaced children rarely have the chance to continue with their learning while living in host communities or refugee camps.
  • Community. In the developing world, community can be closely linked to survival. People work together to care for the sick, feed the hungry, and protect children. This is lost when families scatter.
  • Dignity. Like Mary with her threadbare nightgown, sending her young daughter to line up for family's food rations in the refugee camp, many displaced people are forced to leave their dignity behind.
  • Dreams. Without education, nutrition, shelter and medical care, many parents are forced to leave their dreams for their children behind when they flee.
  • Hope. Millions of forcibly displaced children alive in the world today were born into the desperate poverty of refugee camps or overburdened host communities like Lebanon or Jordan. They know nothing but this life.

Perhaps it's my thoughts for families like Mary's that make me tear-up at Bilbo Baggins' speech. Or perhaps it's the part of me that, like Bilbo, feels called to help them regain the homes that have been taken from them.

Yes, the big players in the international community must work with conflicting parties like those in Syria or South Sudan, to help broker peaceful solutions. But there are also the little people like you and me, the Bilbo Baggins types, who feel we can't contribute much and are reluctant to step out of our comfort zones. We can make a donation to programs like World Vision's Raw Hope program, which helps families living in volatile, unpredictable situations like those in South Sudan, Syria or Afghanistan.

Internally displaced boys in Afghanistan gather to learn under the blazing sun (the girls learn in a different area). World Vision has since restored the crumbling building they were been using for a school.

We may not be able to help 50 million people return to their homes right away. But we can work toward restoring some of the things they couldn't bring with them. Practical things, like food, clothing and shelter. But there's also community, dignity -- and a sense of hope.


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