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Advocate Swims through New York Harbor for World Refugee Day

Andrew Seger, WFUV


People across the globe commemorated World Refugee Day to stand with the world's 65,000,000 displaced persons. One advocate in particular made quite a splash right here in New York Harbor.

Christopher Swain, a member of the United Nations USA Association, jumped into the New York Harbor and swam from the Statue of Liberty all the way back to Manhattan. The swim was to raise money and awareness for the millions of people displaced by problems like conflict, famine and disease. He said it is an issue that hits close to home for him.

“I’m descended in part from Irish refugees, who fled the Great Famine during the 1800s and came to America because they wanted safety, security, food and a fresh start for their families,” Swain said.

Swain started swimming for causes back when he was a college student. After reading the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he was inspired to get involved.

“I was shocked. I thought, wow, this is all the issues that we’re working on. It says right in here all the member nations of the UN back in 1948 were going to distribute this to everyone— how come I didn’t get mine? Why doesn’t everyone know? You know, I was 20-something,” Swain said with a laugh.

So the next summer, he started marching across his home state of Massachusetts, handing out 10,000 copies of the UN’s Declaration.

“But it’s a really hot summer— so hot that the pavement is melting— and I think, ‘Oh man, I should’ve done a swim.’”

The next year, he swam the bottom 200 miles of the Connecticut River for universal human rights.

“It turned out to be a really stupid way to distribute pieces of paper to people,” Swain joked. “But it turned out to be a helpful way to get media attention on the human rights issue.”

He has been swimming for causes, from human rights to environmental issues, ever since. Back on land after yesterday’s two-mile swim against the flow of the Hudson River, Swain reflected on the experience.

“The water tastes like poop, detergent, gasoline and mud, but it wasn’t a water-quality swim today,” Swain said, joking about other swims he has done in the past. “Today the swim was designed to reflect something of the difficult journeys that refugee families are taking every day out there in the world. And the thing to remember is, they’re not choosing to do it.”

He said his swim does not compare at all to what refugees go through to find shelter and safety.

“I didn’t lose my home, and I’m not facing a forced, unplanned migration of thousands of miles, uncertain of what home I’m going back to,” Swain said.

After making port in Battery Park, Swain walked four miles to the United Nations Headquarters to spotlight the arduous journeys refugees often have to travel over land.

Ninette Kelley, the Director of the United Nations Refugee Agency in New York, greeted Swain when he landed at the Battery. She said World Refugee Day provides a chance to bring the world’s attention to the wars, conflict and persecution that have lead to the largest levels of forced displacement in recorded history.

“It’s also to say thank you,” Kelley said. “It’s to say thank you all those states, many of them whom are in the developing world— 84 percent of refugees are in the developing world— thank you for what you do to provide safety to so many. Thank you to our partners and the donors. Thank you to individuals who advocate for good policies for refugees. And also, thank you to refugees, who every single day show us the consequences of war, but also the sheer might of the human spirit.”

Kelley said refugees are just as diverse as any other population in the world, with different sets of skills, experience and also trauma. But, she said there are a couple of things that unite them.

“One is a desire to one day be able to go back home. Second is a real tenacity and will to survive and make a difference,” Kelley said. “For that, refugees have a lot to tell us.”

In 2016, the US welcomed only around 100,000 of the world's refugees. Kelley said it is a global issue that requires systemic changes, but World Refugee Day serves as a reminder that anyone can make a difference just by educating themselves and raising awareness for the cause.