This time last year, I sat on a panel in San Francisco to speak about World Refugee Day. A friend who knew of my friendship with an Iraqi interpreter I met while deployed asked me to participate (the dangers of serving alongside the US military meant my friend eventually had to flee Iraq for safety in America). On the panel, I was among fellow veterans and two young men who had to flee Iran due to persecution. I’m not sure any type of pre-deployment training would have prepared us veterans for the type of journey those two men took to seek freedom.
World Refugee Day is an annual opportunity to commemorate the strength, courage, and perseverance of millions of people who are forced to flee their homes. The desire to establish a home in a community is a universal desire and the feeling of anguish from having to flee one’s home to avoid certain death is equally experienced by people all over the world.
In 1951, the world came together to pass the Refugee Convention, which codified a universal definition for refugees and laid out the kind of legal protection, assistance, and social rights afforded to refugees by ratifying states. Initially, the intention of the Convention was to protect the large number of refugees in Europe in the aftermath of World War II. In 1967, the document was expanded to protect displaced people all over the globe. Today, there are over 65 million refugees in the world – the highest number in history. Recognizing this situation is imperative for all global citizens.
I first became acquainted with the notion of refugees when studying Russian history. I had the opportunity to learn the language from instructors who fled the Soviet Union because of the persecution they faced as Jews. Though socialism was supposed to be a system to unify all peoples, the Soviet Union adopted many anti-Semitic policies.
I have also served in Iraq and Pakistan. Both countries have a history of antagonism toward religious minorities, forcing select populations to completely flee the region. Decades of conflict and militancy have displaced millions of others, resulting in regional geopolitical tensions and continued instability. A generation of children today are growing up refugee camps, hundreds of kilometers from their home province, out of school, and feeling abandoned by the global community.
Fleeing One’s Home is Something Experienced by Many Americans
Today, American audiences likely imagine refugees as African or Middle Eastern families fleeing armed conflict. But, the concept of a refugee is something that has a long history in America.
Just yesterday was Juneteenth, the annual marker of the final end of slavery in Texas (due to geographical isolation, Texas didn’t get word of the end of the Civil War until late May in 1865). Prior to emancipation, those who managed to escape slavery fled to Canada and Northern states for refuge. While they were labeled fugitives at the time, we now know that they were really refugees escaping persecution.
Climate change is now creating refugees and internally displaced persons in America and around the world. Due to encroaching seas and changes in the landscape, small communities have already had to be relocated. Native Alaskan villages have recently appealed to the government for relief as relocation may be their only chance at survival.
The closing of factories and industrial centers throughout the US and the concentration of jobs in urban areas is causing rural Americans to leave their family communities. Many do not want to move, but conditions have required that they relocate for survival’s sake. While relocating for a job may not be as consequential as fleeing bombs, having to start anew and leave behind one’s sense of security is something that many Americans understand today.
Many have argued that gentrification, which is currently occurring in many US cities, is a form of racial and economic displacement, forcing longterm residents from their communities.
Being forced to leave one’s home – where one’s deepest roots have been planted – is something experienced by a wider group of people than might appear on the surface. Because of this, we should all feel a sense of duty to help others while they face these life challenges. We never know when we too will need the goodwill and assistance of others to survive.
Veterans: Advocates for Compassion and Global Security
In the past year, I have become active in a non-partisan group of military veterans advocating for refugee programs. With Veterans for American Ideals, I have engaged members of Congress on refugee legislation, spoke in public media about the Executive Order banning refugees and suspending entry of citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, and have discussed with my peers the national security reasons for continuing refugee resettlement programs, in addition to the humanitarian reasons.
While not all Americans have had the pleasure of becoming friends with a former refugee from Kosovo, Somalia, Afghanistan, or other nations (nor have been able to taste their delicious national cuisine!), I believe there is more common ground than first appears. From my travels across the US, Americans want safety and opportunity for their families – the very same desires of refugees that seek shelter on our shores.
Fellow veterans and I have concluded that our service to America did not end when we left the military. In fact, our time in uniform may only be the beginning of our commitment to America. On this World Refugee Day, I think of the symbol of the bald eagle, representing strength and freedom, as well as the Statute of Liberty, our universal symbol of liberty and freedom. Without action, these symbols are just pictures. I commit to continue celebrating the strength, courage, and perseverance of refugees as they seek freedom. I will continue to use my voice to share stories of the contributions to our nation by refugees and immigrants and to support them in my community. I ask that fellow Americans join us veterans as we continue to serve America and work toward fulfilling our American ideals of liberty and freedom for all.