There are more people displaced from their homes due to war, violence, and natural disasters today than at any other time in history, even more than at the end of World War II. That was the first of many shocking things we learned when members of First Parish Bedford (MA) UU traveled to the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO) Spring Seminar in New York City last week (April 4-7, 2018). Our four teens and three adults heard first-hand from speakers who had to escape violence or persecution in their native lands. Experts also explained that of the nearly 68 million displaced persons today – that’s 1 in every 113 worldwide – over three-fourths are refugees within their own country, known as Internally Displaced Persons. We also learned these figures do not include the estimated 22 million more individuals who have been displaced due to climate change – because there is currently no common definition of climate refugees, and they are not covered by existing refugee treaties.
The First Parish attendees traveling to NYC were among 140 youth and adults at the conference from across the country and Canada. The annual “Intergenerational Spring Seminar” is conducted by the UU-UNO and is planned and organized by a voluntary committee of youth and adults. The Seminar was led by a team of Deans who worked with Allison Hess and other UU-UNO Staff to make the Seminar possible. The Deans for this year’s Seminar were Max Solomon-Frye (Senior Youth Dean), Pablo deVos-Deak (Junior Youth Dean), and Lynda Wilson (Adult Dean). There was also a Chaplain Team available throughout the Seminar to support participants. Events consisted of a key note address by Raed Jarrar, the Advocacy Director MENA (Middle East and Northern Africa) for Amnesty International USA, several plenary sessions and workshops, small facilitated “collaboration groups”, and daily worship. Each year the conference focuses on a different set of global issues.
Our First Parish contingent was organized by Lisa Rubin, the Director of Religious Education at First Parish, Jerry Ross, the congregation’s UNO Envoy, and Sylvia Cowan, a member of our Sanctuary Committee. The youth included Bedford students Amelia Leida, Nate Linden, Paris Stone, and Abi Van Praagh. While at the conference, participants stayed at the HI New York City Hostel and traveled by subway to event venues around Manhattan. The conference included jam-packed days of presentations and workshops, a chance to meet people from around the country, and a “Friday Night on the Town” for the youth (under adult supervision of course!)
Migration and the problem of caring for or resettling refugees poses one of the greatest challenges to the world community. We learned that most displaced persons live in wretched conditions, many for long periods of time, even years. Refugees are often misunderstood and portrayed as a threat. In fact, refugees are people just like us forced to flee for their lives, or families desperately seeking a future for their children where no hope exists. And migrants, once resettled, contribute in many positive ways to a country’s economy and development. Unfortunately, misinformation and hateful language contribute to hurtful stereotypes about migrants and refugees and make their acceptance into new communities all the more difficult.
An unexpected development provided a unique “experiential learning opportunity” during the Seminar. One of the main events was a panel discussion led by UNO Director Bruce Knotts, held inside the United Nations proper. Not surprisingly, security is extremely tight at the UN. Officials unexpectedly announced that anyone without a photo ID would not be allowed to enter. About 20 of the young people had no such identification. The UU-UNO staff were eventually able to obtain permission for youth to be signed in by an adult “sponsor.” But when the group arrived at the UN, they were met by a guard who had not been informed and refused entry, stoically unmoved by explanations or pleas. A long period ensued with staff making phone calls “up the chain” while the group stood outside in the rain. At one point, they could see the rest of the conference attendees enter without a problem - the “privileged” ones with proper “documentation.” The situation was finally resolved and the “undocumented” were allowed to enter, but not without considerable anxiety and an unexpected real-life learning moment.
The Seminar concluded with a collaborative statement synthesized from the input from each collaboration group. The statement summarized many of the learnings from the seminar, created a moral framework for action, and proposed specific steps to improve the lives of refugees and ultimately resolve this humanitarian crisis. We left the seminar with a much better understanding of the issues and a personal commitment to take action. The First Parish attendees plan to report back to their congregation and discuss some of what they learned at a “Lyceum” on Sunday, April 15, 2018.