Why we must help – and learn from – refugees this Ramadan

  • Op-ed by Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees 

This Ramadan is unlike any other in living memory. Across the Muslim world mosques stand empty, iftar meals are strangely quiet affairs, and the joyful social gatherings that normally mark the Holy Month have been abandoned as we grapple with a global health emergency.

For many families, these disconcerting times have been made worse by the dire economic impact of the pandemic. Businesses and livelihoods have been damaged or lost, leading many to question how they will cope during this period and beyond.

For millions of Muslims displaced from their homes or countries by conflict and instability, the current crisis has compounded their suffering. Their health is threatened by an invisible menace they are poorly equipped to tackle, with refugees and displaced people often living in crowded conditions and lacking adequate access to water, sanitation and health services.

The sudden collapse of informal labour markets caused by restrictions on movement has had a disproportionate effect on the poorest in society, including the displaced. With no savings to fall back on, many are facing destitution and taking desperate measures to survive.

My colleagues in UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, who are working on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis report many worrying trends. Large numbers of refugees and displaced people unable to afford rent have been made homeless or are facing the threat of eviction, while others resort to skipping meals or going without medication due to a lack of funds.

Yet despite the frightening and unfamiliar circumstances we find ourselves in, the values of compassion and giving that Ramadan represents have come to the fore. Though physically separated, the faithful are coming together in spirit to provide much-needed assistance and spiritual comfort to their Muslim brothers and sisters.

This year’s UNHCR Ramadan fundraising campaign, “Every Gift Counts”, is on course to generate record support, with more than US$4 million raised in individual donations as we enter the last week of Ramadan.

The funds raised will allow UNHCR to meet some of the most pressing needs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic by providing vital support such as shelter, food, clean water and cash assistance to the most vulnerable refugee and displaced populations.

In many parts of the world, meanwhile, refugees themselves are doing what they can to help others through the crisis. From the Syrian refugees delivering food and running errands for vulnerable locals in Switzerland, to the Afghan refugees in Malaysia making protective equipment for frontline health workers, they embody the spirit of collective action needed to meet this global challenge.

Take the example of Huda, a Syrian widow who has spent the last five years in a refugee settlement in Lebanon with her children. Despite living in extreme poverty and having to borrow money to survive, this Ramadan she is taking what little she has and cooking large meals to share with her neighbours to help them celebrate the Holy Month.

The pandemic has brought great loss and hardship, but it has also spurred acts of kindness and compassion and seen many of us reconsider what is truly important in our lives. These moments of generosity and spiritual reflection represent the core values of Ramadan and show us that even during a crisis, there is an opportunity for progress and self-improvement.

This Ramadan, many of the world’s Muslims find themselves having to adjust to a new reality, stranded away from home or separated from their friends and loved ones. But there is much that can be learned from the experience of refugees, for whom this has been the norm for years or even decades.

Their resilience and courage in the face of adversity. Their devotion to family and friends. Their instinct to share responsibility for helping those less fortunate within their communities.

As we worry about when we can be reunited with our friends and family and resume our normal lives, it is worth remembering that those displaced by conflict, violence and persecution are faced with these uncertainties, and many more, every day. The grace and fortitude with which they respond can be an inspiration to us all. [Ends]

UN entities involved in this initiative
UNHCR
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees