My Friend, The Refugee

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Hyeonseo Lee's story of suffering and courage underlines the plight of North Koreans and the dangers faced by those seeking to escape. In a more general way, it offers an even wider invitation to consider the plight of refugees globally.

Like many others in the West, I once viewed refugees' plight as tragic but not as central to my daily life. I wasn't even aware how widespread their hardship was. For example, though the news magazine to which I then subscribed often probed celebrities' personal lives, it never reported the situation in Congo-DRC until an estimated three million people died there. (At that point the crisis finally merited half a page of coverage.)

The magazine never mentioned the DRC's smaller neighbor, Congo-Brazzaville -- not even the country's existence, much less the war there. That was the country of my close friend from graduate school, Médine Moussounga. Médine and I had once discussed marriage, though we hadn't pursued it.

She warned that war had come to her town, and the soldiers reportedly had orders to kill educated people first. "I don't know whether I'm going to live or die," she lamented frantically. -- Craig S. Keener

Then one day I received a letter that Médine had sent through a relative who was leaving her country. She warned that war had come to her town, and the soldiers reportedly had orders to kill educated people first. "I don't know whether I'm going to live or die," she lamented frantically. By the time this letter reached me, her town had been destroyed. For the next eighteen months, I didn't know if my friend was alive or dead.

During those months Médine fled with a baby on her back, she and her siblings pushing her disabled father in a wheelbarrow. They slept in abandoned buildings as they moved from one village to another, exposed to malarial mosquitoes and trying always to stay ahead of the fighting. Some of the only water they could find for drinking was toxic, contaminated with human waste or dead bodies. At any given time, someone in the family was close to death, including Médine.

When they finally settled in a town away from the harshest fighting, Médine regularly had to walk ten miles a day, through rainforest and snake-infested swamps. She was trying to secure food for a meal each day for the family. After running through fields of army ants she would pick the ants from her body. The family subsisted especially on bland cassava roots and leaves, but also rats, ferns, and occasionally birds and fish. Her family fared better than many others, however; many children were starving. The son of one member of their group of refugees was gunned down when he slipped away to gather food.

Some friends fled further from the war, crossing into Gabon. There members of the international community helped people in refugee camps, although even there dangers remained. One of Médine's closest friends was raped there by a local aid worker. In times of war, few places are guaranteed as safe.

Once a tentative peace emerged, international aid reached the place where Médine was staying; although some community leaders who were not refugees confiscated some items for themselves, the refugees finally had access to lentils and rice. Doctors Without Borders and the International Red Cross were among the first aid groups into the area. Because Médine knew English, she translated letters that had come with some supplies. One British girl had written, "I am giving up all my allowance so I can provide this gift for a child in Congo." As Médine translated the letter, she began to weep. It meant so much that someone in the outside world cared.

Médine eventually ventured outside the rainforest. The house had been destroyed and her neighborhood was eerily quiet; most of the children in the neighborhood had died. Although her address book had been destroyed, she found a way to contact me. "I'm alive!" her new letter began. "I, Médine Moussounga, am alive!"

Even if Médine had been able to apply for a refugee visa during the war, she almost certainly would not have gotten one; there are far too few slots available for the vast numbers of the world's refugees. Happily, in our case it didn't matter, because we really wanted a fiancée visa instead. Even that process proved complicated, but that is another story.

We've been married now for eleven wonderful years, but Médine still shudders when she hears fireworks. She weeps when she reads of genocides. Like the story of Hyeonseo Lee in her courageous flight from North Korea, refugees have much to teach us about what really matters in life. People, even people who live far away from us, matter more than do the issues that so often distract us.

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