World Refugee Day: How Travelers Can Make A Difference

Not everyone who travels around the world is a traveler. Millions of people on the move have been displaced by war, famine and failing economies. But travelers can make a difference to their lives.


People walking Photo © Getty Images/Jasmin Merdan

“On my way to Kenya from Burundi, I spent four days traveling overland in a truck,” explained Kaoma, a young Congolese man I met in Kenya. “The days were long and increasingly hot as the green mountains gave way to flat, arid desert. When we finally arrived in Kenya, I was surprised to see how different the landscapes were.” Kaoma was not recounting a thrilling overland adventure but rather, his exhausting journey fleeing war for the second time, from Bujumbura to northern Kenya. Kaoma is a refugee. More than that, Kaoma is a father, a son, an engineer, an entrepreneur, and a business owner.

We live in a global world where goods, people, and ideas seemingly move freely across borders. International travel is more accessible than ever for much of the world (well, in a pre-and post-pandemic world, that is). There is an undeniable allure in the freedom that comes with leaving behind your home and the anticipation of heading into the unknown as you explore new landscapes, savor new flavors, learn new languages, and experience new cultures.

But what about individuals who leave their homes and are driven across borders not by choice but rather by fear, out of survival, and for hope for a better life? For Simon Peter, a South Sudanese teacher, becoming a refugee was to “seek peace in my mind, to leave the memory of what happened in my home behind, to forget what I have seen with my eyes and what happened to me, my family, my country.”

World Refugee Day

June’s annual World Refugee Day acknowledges the 31 million people classified as refugees and asylum seekers, for whom leaving home is not accompanied by the thrill and privilege of travel. Most refugees do not take planes or trains to their anticipated destinations but make the journey by foot, in cars traversing militia-occupied roads, or in boats enduring harrowing crossings. When reflecting on his journey from Bujumbura to Kenya with his wife and young son, Kaoma commented: “We spent four days hidden in the back of a container on a truck. When we arrived in Kakuma, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I thought, ‘How can anyone live in these conditions?’ Here we are in the desert, living in a tent, where nothing can grow. Where are the mountains from my home?”

Refugees – a term I generally like to avoid due to the stigma associated with it – don’t have tour guides, plush hotels, and exciting excursions awaiting them. And yet, rather than being welcomed as they cross borders into unfamiliar territory escaping the throws of war, natural disasters, and unimaginable circumstances, many forcibly displaced individuals are met with suspicion and are forced to reside in cramped conditions, remote settlements, and typically inhospitable circumstances. An exhausting list of barriers often faces displaced communities, from bans on obtaining SIM cards, work permits, and business licenses, to water, health care, and electricity shortages.

What can travelers do to help?

Beyond the joys of experiencing other cultures and finding personal growth on the road, if there is one thing that my years of travel have taught me it is that the world is intimately interconnected. Travelers are global citizens and part of being a conscious traveler includes supporting and bringing awareness to global issues and the communities impacted by them.

So, as travelers, how can we help support displaced communities? While we may not be able to change the circumstances that have forced millions of people to flee from their homes, there are many ways that we, a community deeply embedded in the global trajectory, can extend a helping hand. After all, we surely have benefited from the kindness of strangers while abroad, at least once or twice.

One of the most rewarding parts of travel is experiencing new cultures. Whether you’re at home or are exploring abroad, there are many ways to learn about the cultures of people who have been displaced. At home, look into volunteering with local entities that support asylee and refugee communities. This could mean teaching ESL classes, providing transport to appointments, offering temporary housing, or donating goods to help families get set up in their new homes.

Many countries you visit, from Turkey and Jordan to Uganda and Germany, are host to significant displaced populations. On your next trip, rather than just seeking out your typical “travel” experience, why not break from the norm and explore experiences and businesses run by displaced communities? Food halls, art galleries, artisan shops, in-home dining experiences, and walking tours are among some of the many ways you can support displaced communities around the world while also having the opportunity to celebrate the cultures of the places they left behind. Below are just a handful of businesses run by displaced people that you can visit to find out more.

Travel experiences run by displaced people

Amani Café- Nairobi, Kenya: a lush garden space in the south Nairobi neighborhood of Kilimani, Amani was started by four refugee women in 1996 who fled to Kenya in search of peace. Combining their love of African textiles and sewing skills, these women brought Amani ya Juu (meaning Peace from Above) to life. Amani now has a production center, a boutique shop selling beautiful art crafted by refugees in Kenya, and a breakfast and lunch café.

Arthere Istanbul- Istanbul, Turkey: home to approximately four million refugees, Turkey hosts dozens of interesting projects supporting displaced populations that contribute to the dynamic trajectory of the city. Arthere was established by Syrian artists in Istanbul as a space to continue their practice after having to leave their home country. Explore the exhibitions or attend one of the cultural events taking place in this creative space.

Muhra- Istanbul, Turkey: Muhra is an enterprise founded by Syrian women who met in Istanbul and craft beautiful jewelry, embroidery, and metalwork with the aim of creating opportunity and storytelling. Their goods can be found in markets around Istanbul, as well as shops worldwide featuring handicrafts made by refugee artisans.

Tibet World- Dharamshala, India: in Dharamshala, a Himalayan town in Himachal Pradesh that is the home-in-exile of the Dalai Lama, attend a cultural event at Tibet World. This community center is dedicated to the education and preservation of the Tibetan community and offers a whole range of dance, music, language, and cultural performances throughout the week.

Refugee Voices Tour, Berlin, Germany: experience Berlin’s major sites through an entirely new lens. Rather than showing visitors the typical side to the city, refugees residing in Berlin lead walking tours that shed light on their experience. Refugee Voices Tour offers a walking tour that brings you through the journey of the refugee rights movement. They also offer a tour that sheds light on the Syrian revolution and conflict, exploring the roots of why people have fled, using Berlin as the backdrop while drawing parallels with the German capital’s own history of revolutions and war. They also lead a tour in Copenhagen.

Rederij Lampedusa, Amsterdam, Netherlands: skip the typical Amsterdam canal trip in favor of one led by Rederij Lampedusa. Aboard boats that previously transported refugees across the Mediterranean, you will be guided down the canals of Amsterdam by a crew who have roots in Egypt, Syria, Somalia, Eritrea, and the Netherlands. Along the ride, learn how the boats were once used to smuggle migrants across the Mediterranean and listen to stories from your guides about how they became refugees.

Refugee Food Festival, France: each year leading up to World Refugee Day in June, the Refugee Food Festival takes place across several cities in France. Experience the flavors of Tibet, Syria, Sudan, Ukraine, and beyond at lunches, dinners, and cooking workshops from Paris to Marseilles. Food has a universal power. Despite having to leave so much behind, culinary traditions can be carried across borders and are an important way to preserve and tell stories about flavors, agriculture, and traditions from one’s home.

From Spice Bridge in Seattle to Flavors from Afar in Los Angeles, North American cities are home to innovative food halls run by refugee and immigrant chefs, who are given the space and support to start a small food business. This concept paves the way for business opportunities that provide economic stability to refugee and immigrant communities, while also giving them the space to celebrate a piece of their culture and homeland through food. At these colorful kitchens, sample aromatic Afghan rice and meat, saucy Ethiopian dishes, Somali-style sambusas, fresh Persian salads, and so much more. At Spice Bridge, read poems on the walls of the restaurant written by refugee students in south Seattle, reflecting on what they miss from home and their experiences in transitioning countries.

How to help online

If you can’t visit a place in person, head to online shops such as Refugee Arts, a global e-commerce hub selling goods impeccably crafted by Afghan, Ethiopian, and Burmese women, and Darzah, an online shop selling embroidered shoes, bags, and scarves by Palestinian artisans. Football fans can get their latest sportswear from Klabu’s online shop, which supports football clubs and sports libraries in Kenyan refugee camps.

Beyond supporting businesses, simply take the time to learn about the culture, the food, the language, the history, and the people of a country you might not have the opportunity to visit. These experiences allow individuals who have had to flee their homes a chance to preserve, celebrate, and share a piece of their story that the world might not otherwise know. For Esther, a young woman who escaped unimaginable violence in South Sudan, her message is this: “Being a refugee is not a crime. We never wanted to be refugees; it is just the circumstances that brought us here. We all have equal rights and as long as I get the opportunity to study, I want to go as high as I can. I want to bring impact.”

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