Somali refugees walking beside a road on the western coast of Hodeidah city, Yemen | Photo: EPA/STRINGER
Somali refugees walking beside a road on the western coast of Hodeidah city, Yemen | Photo: EPA/STRINGER

To mark World Refugee Day this June, the UNHCR is encouraging people around the world to count the steps they walk, run and cycle and register on a website. The aim? To cover the distance that refugees are forced to walk every year in order to reach safety. The campaign aims to honor the efforts families make to survive, the UNHCR says.

"Every step counts!” says the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR on their website “”. 

It might seem like a strange contrast at first. In developed countries, people setting off for a run or a cycle or a walk, with a step-counter plugged into a smartphone or a smartwatch while they go for a run to benefit their own health, registering their steps on apps like Strava; but they are making these steps to show solidarity. Solidarity with people like Eva.

Eva is just nine years old and in 12 days she walked 409 kilometers to reach a refugee camp in Ethiopia from her native South Sudan. Eva’s father, mother, and brother were all killed. She made that journey from South Sudan to Ethiopia alone. She had to flee because armed forces attacked the village where she lived. After six days walking she reached a village near the Ethiopian border and a woman helped her with some money, shoes and clothes. 

That help enabled her to cross the border and keep walking until she reached the Tirgol transit center. There, the UNHCR gave her food, a sleeping mat, shelter, water and a jerry can. Five days later Eva and thousands of other children who arrived in Ethiopia on their own were transported to Nguenyyiel refugee camp by bus. There they received food, shelter, water and access to medical care from the UNHCR.Malian villagers come to collect water in Koygouma as a delegation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees UNHCR and United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali MINUSMA visits the Timbuktu region 6 May 2019  Photo EPANICOLAS REMENEForced to flee

“There were air strikes and dead bodies all around us… I didn’t want my kids to end up like that,” Zeenab told the UNHCR after fleeing Syria for Jordan. They left Syria in the middle of winter, they could barely carry anything with them, she explains, which meant leaving things like blankets behind. They were only able to bring two changes of clothes for each child. After three days, the family had covered 144 kilometers on foot and reached Jordan. Later they were transferred to the Za’atari camp where temporary shelters have been set up under the wide open skies of the desert. Zeenab, her husband and four children now receive winter cash assistance from the UNHCR to help them get through the cold months when several jumpers are needed to ward off the cold.

Alin Nisa, from Myanmar also walked 102 kilometers in 10 days carrying her children while her husband carried his mother who was unable to walk. “It was a terrible journey, we had to cross jungle and climb huge hills,” she told the UNHCR. Like Eva, Alin and her family were forced to flee their village when armed men arrived, “abducting people and demanding food and money.” They had nothing but the clothes on their backs, writes the UNHCR website depicting their story.

Vast makeshift camps

A long trail of people and colorful packages stretches on narrow paths in between paddy fields and flooded deltas. Alin was forced to cross mountains and rivers, wading through the water in order to reach safety. Along the way, some people gave them enough dry food to survive, “sometimes they did not eat at all,” explains the UNHCR. On day eight they reached the Kutupalong Extension Site, a makeshift refugee camp in Bangladesh. Here huts and temporary shelters stretch out over a vast area. Many of the shelters are built from plastic sheeting and bamboo, provided by the UNHCR. On arrival, families receive a cooking kit, mats and blankets.Rohingya refugees are fleeing ethnic violence in Myanmar  Photo Picture Alliance  Nur Photo  T ChowdhuryUNHCR workers like Pilar also cover huge distances as they accompany the most vulnerable along part of the way, shepherding them to their destinations and visiting each family to make sure that they are as comfortable as it is possible to be in huge refugee camps. “Most of the kilometers were covered as we took families who had been temporarily staying in schools in the old camp, to the new camp through small paths,” explains Pilar. Many of the refugees were particularly vulnerable, she adds: “Like old people or pregnant women. We walked through paths, up and down slopes and across bamboo bridges. There were very few trees so no shade from the sun.”

Join the challenge

Part of Pilar’s work is visiting each newly arrived family and assessing their shelter conditions and giving out kits in order to reinforce what they have. “We work day and night. The needs are vast and new refugees arrive every day,” explains Pilar. In six days she covered 96 kilometers as part of her job.

The UNHCR says their initiative is about “honoring the […] extraordinary efforts […] families make to survive. We are coming together to honor their resilience and determination to keep their families safe.” In the next 12 months, they want people to challenge themselves and cover two billion kilometers. They hope for 10 million before World Refugee Day on June 20.Village Asubuli in Ethiopia  Photo Norwegian Refugee Council NRCAs the UNHCR points out, most refugees flee to the neighboring country or stay within the region in which they were born. Only one percent of them ever settle in third countries. “Turkey hosts the most refugees, followed by Pakistan, Uganda and Lebanon.”  The organization hopes that the initiative will also help “build better understanding of refugees and raise money to protect them and help them rebuild their lives."

If you want to join the campaign, you can sign up at this site and click “join the movement” to share you can take a selfie, tag your friends and challenge them to join too.


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