Refugees and the White House Correspondents' Dinner

An unprecedented number of people attending the White House Correspondents' Dinner this year are engaged in refugee affairs, from Brad Smith, the President of Microsoft, who has focused on pro-bono work with refugees and co-founded KIND with Angelina Jolie, to actress Michelle Dockery who supports some of the best refugee and human rights organizations in the world.

At this year's dinner I'll be joining Mari Malek, a former refugee from South Sudan and also a Kenneth Cole model and member of Kenneth Coles' Courageous Class. Mari is the Founder of Stand4Education, a non-profit focused on educating girls and children in South Sudan. RefugePoint, the organization I lead, will have an opportunity to introduce Mari to President and First Lady Michelle Obama that evening.

We aspire to see people like Mari excel and become spokespeople for the issues they care most about. This is ultimately what RefugePoint aims to do: We enable refugees to permanently relocate to countries where they can rebuild their lives, or to become self reliant in the countries to which they've fled so they don't need to depend on aid.

When refugees find a safe place to restart their lives, they are always highly motivated to support themselves, go to school, raise their families, and become contributing members of their communities. In some cases, like Mari's, they become spokespeople and role models. When refugees themselves have a chance to speak publicly, they can convey their own narratives about who they are, rather than leaving that to others who know less about them.

Last year, Sandra Uwiringiyimana, a young Congolese woman, attended the White House Correspondents' Dinner where she was able to meet the President and First Lady. We helped Sandra to resettle to the US after she survived a refugee massacre at the Gatumba camp in Burundi in 2004. She shared that story with NPR's Here & Now where you can also see her photo with the President and First Lady (a photo of her dress, designed by Zero + Maria Cornejo, went viral last year). Sandra will be coming out with a book next year about her experiences and life.

In 2014, Yar Ayuel, a South Sudanese woman from the Boston area, attended the dinner and met the President and First Lady. She shared her story with them, as well as with Here & Now and the Boston Globe. Yar, Sandra, and Mari are all invaluable voices for girls and women, and for the dangers that continue to impact their home countries. When we hear from refugees, and when we meet them, we are inspired to act and to engage.

This is true for both Republicans and Democrats. The Sanctuary movement, one of the great efforts in our country's history to protect refugees, originated on the Arizona Mexico border, took firm root in Texas, and spread to cities across the US to shield refugees from deportation who were fleeing violence in Central America. One of its leaders said, "we're a very conservative group of folks politically. But once we encountered the refugees face to face, we couldn't justify not taking them in."

This kind of empathy is what the company Show of Force aims to stimulate through its Humanity on the Move campaign about the global refugee crisis, and what Gabo Arora and Chris Milk aim to tap into through their work with the United Nations on virtual reality films. Emmanuel Levinas got it right with his Face en Face philosophy, which essentially says that when we meet people face to face we become morally responsible for one another. Our own personal encounters with others is a key to tapping into our deepest values and sense of humanity, and such experiences can in turn guide our actions and influence our lives (I say more about this in my upcoming book)

So find an opportunity to meet and engage with people who have fled from their homes and are trying to rebuild their lives. The Welcoming America Movement is a good place to start. And if you are at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, look for Mari and say hello.