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refugee advocates reflect on UN week

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Foni Vuni and Barth Mwanza’s impressions, takeaways, and most memorable UNGA moments

This September, leaders from around the world convened at the 74th United Nations General Assembly — UNGA — to discuss some of the biggest challenges facing the world today — from climate change to education to human rights. Global Refugee Youth Advocates Foni Vuni and Barth Mwanza have a conversation about how they’ve each experienced this important week.

Foni – As an UNGA newbie, what did you think of the General Assembly high-level week? Was is what you expected?

Barth – Before coming here, I was asking myself, when they say the first-ever global Youth Climate Summit, what will it look like? When I saw hundreds of youths from different walks of life speaking about climate from their respective vantage points and taking on such important roles during the event, I was really impressed. It was interesting to see how climate engagement was brought forward in different ways: some people delivered poems, others presented culinary traditions which at first surprised me, but come to think of it, it makes total sense because even food will be affected by climate change.

Foni – What was the most memorable thing you did during UNGA?

Barth – It was really special for me to represent refugee youth and speak for them. I live in the Tongogara refugee camp in Zimbabwe — a place that is slowly rising from the ashes of cyclone Idai. It was very important for me to be able to show that a climate disaster is already unfolding. In the Chipinge district, where Tongogara camp is located, over 2,000 refugee houses, mostly built with mud bricks, were completely destroyed or partially damaged and over 600 latrines have collapsed. Refugee youths in my community were quick to mobilize to help with recovery, rehabilitation, reconstruction as well as preparedness. It was important for me to stress that youths have the energy, drive, and knowledge to engage in climate action. We are told that the future belongs to the young, but the present belongs to us, too. It is urgent that we act and get involved. I was also deeply moved by Greta Thunberg’s emotional message on climate change. She is a very powerful voice for youth across the world.

Foni – Do you feel that refugee voices were heard?

Barth – Absolutely. I was given an important platform to express myself and represent refugee communities, and my intervention was live-streamed and covered by the media. The important thing now is to take the UNGA spark and momentum back home, back to my community. Every small step counts. I will go back and show youths that it is our responsibility to take action on climate change. We don’t have to wait for disasters to act. As they say, prevention is better than cure.

Foni – This is your first time here in New York. What was your impression of this place?

Barth – I was overwhelmed by the tall buildings which is not something you see in Harare. I went all the way up to the 67th floor at the top of the Rockefeller center, that was really frightening!

Foni – What was the most surprising thing for you during your trip? Did anything shock you?

Barth – I didn’t expect to see people sleeping outside, I thought everyone would have a decent life here in America, but I was shocked to see homeless people sleeping on the streets without a roof over their heads. I’m curious to learn more about this.

Foni – You spoke about the film ‘Coming to America’? Now that you’re here, do you think the film matches the reality?

Barth – I do. The film depicted people always on-the-go, working non-stop, which I could really see firsthand in New York. Everyone seems extremely busy here. I saw people working even after midnight, and people rushing to the subway. I was really surprised by how fast-paced and busy it is.

Foni and Barth riding the subway on their way to the Global Climate Strike in Battery Park, New York City. ©UNHCR/Deanna Bitetti

Barth – You’ve spoken at UNGA twice before. Was there anything different for you this time around? Did anything grab your attention?

Foni – I could see that youths were kind of running the show this time around. It was impressive to see people as young as 14 and 16 years speaking up and taking part in advocacy on climate action. Young people were in the driver’s seat and in charge of coming up with solutions to climate change. The other thing that caught my attention is how youths from refugee-producing countries are actively taking part in climate action. As much as the countries are still struggling, you could see that they are actively trying to make a change. There was global energy around climate action. More people have realized that there’s a big shift when it comes to climate, and they realized that they have a key role to play in order to protect their future, and the future of their children’s children. It is no longer only about the scientists or the politicians. It is also about affected communities speaking out and trying to come up with sustainable solutions.

Barth – Why do you think it’s important to have the voices of refugees at an event like this?

Foni – Refugees live in communities that are affected by climate change and must be directly involved in the conversation and in action around the issue. I think it’s also important that refugees take part in driving change in society. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were not developed for a specific group of people, they were developed for everyone, and this includes refugees.

Barth – I will ask you the same question you asked me: do you feel that refugee voices were heard?

Foni – They were, firstly because there was a realization that climate emergencies need to be addressed and, at the same time, war-torn countries that are pushing people to flee need the world’s attention. If we don’t resolve wars, then we won’t have enough time to talk about climate and SDG 13. And if we keep addressing peace and climate separately, then we will continue to see refugees unable to go back home because neither climate nor political solutions are achieved.

Foni and Barth meet with UNHCR’s Deputy High Commissioner Kelly Clements at Everyman Coffee, a small refugee-hiring business near Union Square in Manhattan, New York City. ©UNHCR/ Aidan Nguyen

Barth – What was your main takeaway from this year’s UNGA?

Foni – I clearly see that we cannot separate the refugee crisis from climate change. Refugees are not only affected by climate change, they have stepped up and taken action. This year’s GA has given me the drive to not only focus on refugee-related advocacy but also to pay more attention to climate action. It has encouraged me to go back to my community and show them the role refugee youths have to play when it comes to climate action.

Barth – Finally, a serious question. I remember you told me you were craving some caramel popcorn. Did you end up eating it?

Foni – Yes, I did! It tasted really good. It was a good reward after all the hard work.



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