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Creating Right Relationships with the International Refugee Community in the Wake of Little Bee

Shlomo's picture

We all know that Little Bee is a work of fiction.  Its poetic text, symbolic prose, and beautiful imagery—while stunning—are not describing real people or events.  But it is based in reality, and the fact remains that there are thousands upon thousands of refugees around the world.  Many of these refugees bear horrific physical and/or emotional scars that we cannot even begin to comprehend.  And yet, despite our acknowledged lack of comprehension, it is only natural that we want to help these refugees.  We are all human, after all, and the thought of other humans forced to flee their homes (and sometimes forced to lose their conceptions of their bodies as home) is hard to understand and subsequently ignore.

     After reading Little Bee, I know there was some conversation in class about what can be done to aid refugees.  It is my hope that my web event will serve to further inform and thus continue that conversation.  I think that by better understanding the international refugee crisis, how we can help, and hopefully implementing our new knowledge, we can build a right relationship (or at least a better, more just relationship) with the refugees scattered across the globe.  Anyway, because I want this web event to continue our in-class conversation, I have written this web event in what I believe is a conversational tone.  Finally, I want to mention that this web event is by no means a complete discussion of all that can be done, but it is a start.  Thanks for reading.


     To start, I think it is worthwhile to present some of the facts and statistics regarding the worldwide status of refugees.  In 2010, 43.7 million people were, in the words of the United Nations, forcibly displaced.  It is important to note that “forcible displacement” includes not only refugees like Little Bee/Udo but also internally displaced persons, who flee their homes but not their countries.  The 43.7 million forcibly displaced people constitute approximately 0.64% of the world’s population.  So, if the world’s population was represented by the Haverford student body, approximately eight Haverford students would be refugees.  The same is true regarding Bryn Mawr.  Another way of conceptualizing the sheer vastness of the number is that if each displaced person was represented by one inch, the displaced people of the world would stretch about 690 miles (a 12-hour trip by car).  Of the 43.7 million forcibly displaced people, 27.5 million were displaced by conflict.  A thought that occurred to me while researching for this web event and that is truly horrifying is that each of these 43.7 million people has a story like Little Bee’s.

     Now that we know a little more about refugee numbers worldwide, I think we should gain a basic understanding of the United States policy on refugees.  The United States has what is called an annual ceiling for refugees.  Basically, it is a number of refugees, agreed upon by the President and Congress, that can be accepted into the United States each year.  As of 2008, that number is 80,000 (which seems rather low, considering the number of displaced people worldwide and the fact that in 1981, the United States had an annual ceiling of over 200,000).  The annual ceiling is divided into regional ceilings: the United States can accept 28,000 refugees from South Asia and the Near East, 20,000 East Asian refugees, 16,000 African refugees, 3,000 refugees from Europe or Central Asia, and 3,000 Latin American or Caribbean refugees.  The remaining 10,000 refugee slots are unallocated.

     Anyone applying for refugee status in the United States must complete an interview with an officer of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (except for applicant children [unmarried and under age 21] and spouses, who may be processed along with the original applicant).  If the applicant is determined eligible for refugee status, he or she must then pass medical and security

     Perhaps the easiest way to provide aid to refugees is to contribute financially.  I say this is the easiest not because I imagine we all have high disposable incomes.  Instead, financial contribution is the easiest way of helping because it is quite simple to plug in a credit card number online (which many agencies accept), because it takes the least amount of time, and because contribution options have a wide range so as to be viable options for people of all income brackets.  Financial contributions are accepted at the American Refugee Committee, the United Nations’ Blue Key Campaign, and the Women’s Refugee Commission, among others.

     There are, however, three downsides to financial contribution toward refugee aid (all interrelated).  First, monetary aid is not personal.  You never get to know who you are helping or how your contribution helps them.  Second, you don’t actually KNOW where your money is going.  While you may think that it is directly paying for a refugee’s flight to America, you may instead be paying for the stamps of the corporation that you are donating to.  Third, the impersonality and the short amount of time it takes to contribute make the refugee crisis easy to forget.  It’s easy to feel like you have done your part and simply move on.  But for refugees, who are stuck in the throes of relocating and dealing with all they have been through, there is no such moving on.  To truly help refugees and better understand their struggle, we must not forget them.

     Another option for helping refugees is to donate time rather than money.  Volunteering options range from simple (volunteering locally once a week) to rigorous (moving to another nation for at minimum half a year).  Locally, you can help refugees learn English, apply for jobs, and attend important appointments.  Other, less personal local duties involve grant writing, mailing support, and newsletter drafting.  Volunteering provides more lasting memories than contributing financially does, thus allowing for more lasting attention to the refugee crisis.  Furthermore, volunteering eliminates the problem of not knowing where your money is going.  For the most part, what you are doing and what you are supporting is clear.  In addition, volunteering (even doing mailing support) is inherently more personal than just giving money is.  Working at an agency can help you better understand the process of naturalization and the struggles faces by refugees; working directly with refugees can help you better understand their stories.  A great resource for volunteer opportunities (both local and international) is the International Rescue Committee. 

     There are other, broader methods for helping refugees, (hopefully) fostering social change, and fostering a right relationship between refugees and the world.  The UN suggests two other options: starting a fundraiser and participating in their program that connects American students with students in Darfur refugee camps.  The fundraiser, unlike donating money, allows for lots of thought regarding refugees (since planning such an event is so time-consuming).  However, it remains somewhat impersonal and runs the risk of not knowing where exactly all the money is going.  Conversing with students in a refugee camp also helps American students like us gain a better understanding of refugees and think about them often.  However, it is questionable whether such a connection is immediately helpful to the refugees.

     If we had more time remaining in the semester, I would suggest that we try to connect with Darfur refugee students, or start a fundraiser.  With only one week to go, however, I hope that my web event has given you some more ways to support refugees.  Let’s keep the conversation going.




Cleave, Christopher.  Little Bee.  Simon and Schuster.  New York: 2008.  Print.

Facts and Figures.  The Blue Key Campaign.  UNHCR.  4 December 2011.  Web.  <>.

Gender-Based Violence.  Women’s Refugee Commission.  4 December 2011.  Web.  <>.

Refugee to United States.  4 December 2011.  Web.  <>.

Refugee Volunteer Opportunities.  International Rescue Committee.  4 December 2011.  Web.  <>.

Students Helping Refugees.  USA for UNHCR.  UNHCR.  4 December 2011.  Web.  <>.

Refugees and Asylees in the United States.  US in Focus, 2011.  Migration Information Source.  4 December 2011.  Web.  <>.

You Can Help!  American Refugee Committee International.  4 December 2011.  Web.  <>.




Kaye's picture

starting down the path to right relationships

Shlomo:  As a fellow natural scientist, I appreciate your inclusion of the facts and statistics about refugees globally and in the USA as well as your analogies to help us better understand the magnitude of those numbers.  However, these numbers are in the tens of millions, so introducing your web event by mentioning the "thousands upon thousands of refugees" sorely underestimates the extent of the problem.  I found the information you presented about US policy on refugees to be disturbing:  "As of 2008, that number (of refugees who can be admitted to the US) is 80,000 (which seems rather low---I agree!---, considering the number of displaced people worldwide and the fact that in 1981, the United States had an annual ceiling of over 200,000)."  I'm curious what drove this reduction in numbers of refugees we were willing to accept, how responsive these numbers have been to global crises, and how the regional distribution of "acceptable" refugees is politically influenced.  In addition, you mention that "he or she must then pass medical and security (checks)."  Do you know what percentage of applicants are granted asylum, how long the process takes, and whether they are detained while awaiting a decision?  These issues seem particularly relevant in light of Little Bee/Udo's situation in Cleave's novel.

As you highlight, even if we know that there is a refugee problem and want to help, it's not clear how to be in "right relationship" with refugees to improve their well-being or to enact social change. You mention three respected organizations (American Refugee Committee, the United Nations’ Blue Key Campaign, and the Women’s Refugee Commission) who work with/for refugees, but question whether impersonal monetary donations to these groups actually do much for the refugees or simply enable us to put their concerns aside.  You also raise the concern that "you don’t actually KNOW where your money is going.  While you may think that it is directly paying for a refugee’s flight to America, you may instead be paying for the stamps of the corporation that you are donating to."  While we can't know the details of our individual donation was spent, we can utilize organizations such as Charity Navigator to find out how much of an organization's funds are spent on programming vs overhead.  When I checked out American Refugee Committee, they were given a 4-star rating by this organization.

Recommending ways that individuals could volunteer their time, rather than just funds, adds an important dimension to your web event.  While organizing a fund-raiser does require a longer commitment and more personal involvement than donating cash, it does not encourage the formation of right relationships with refugees.  Does it really help us be in solidarity with them as fellow human beings?  How can we have personal, cross-cultural, potentially political relationships? There are many refugees and immigrants in the Philadelphia area who need assistance in navigating our culture to secure jobs, services, transportation, health care, education, etc.  However, the International Rescue Committee, which you recommend, does not have a local office in Philadelphia, which may make this a less viable alternative for students in the Bi-Co.  If you want to do something local, I encourage you to look into the Nationalities Service Center, where Haverford and Bryn Mawr students have volunteered and done community-based learning projects.

As you note in your opening paragraph, this is not by any "means a complete discussion of all that can be done, but it is a start."  What I'm left wondering at the end of this paper, is what did this start for you?  What are you going to do now that you know more about the extent of the problem in the US?  You mention that "If we had more time remaining in the semester, I would suggest that we try to connect with Darfur refugee students, or start a fundraiser."  Might you want to follow up with this for your final web event? What might you do to build right relationships with refugees?  How do you currently understand the concept of "right relationship"?  What could it look like?