Imagine a girl spending most of her youth in refugee camps throughout eastern and southern Africa. Now, imagine that same young girl attending some of the best educational institutions in the world: New Trier and Hotchkiss High Schools and Yale University. Seems impossible, right?
Growing up, many of us are taught to place limits on what we can accomplish while on earth. We tend to think of things in binary form, either as possible, or, more frequently, impossible. As a child growing up in refugee camps, life taught me that many things were impossible. My older sister, Claire, taught me otherwise when her strength and resilience made the impossible possible in the way she worked, behaved and took control of our lives.
When I reflect on my life, I understand how it is that I, a refugee and survivor of genocide and war, ended up where I am today. All that I have achieved has been possible not only because of my own strength and perseverance, gained through hardship, but also through other people's support and belief in me. The rudiments of this belief -- kindness, love, compassion and financial support -- are simple; and it is possible for all of us to provide them in some way.
There are millions of people, refugees, who have experienced the same conflicts and struggles I did. They have the same potential to defy the odds and achieve great things. Thousands live in towns and cities across the United States; they are your neighbors.
About nineteen years ago, my older sister Claire and I were separated from our family when we fled the genocide in Rwanda. Our parents sent us to our grandparents, thinking that the conflict would not last long. We first ended up in the middle of nowhere in a refugee camp in Burundi. For the next six years we moved around, living in seven other countries throughout eastern and southern Africa. In those six years of fleeing, in search of peace and our parents, I had no sense of direction. Cardinal directions -- North, South, East, West -- were all the same to me. I had no idea where I was on a world map. I was completely lost, physically and emotionally.
So, how did I end up where I am today? How did I end up on a panel at The Third Metric Conference, an event organized by Arianna Huffington and Mika Brzezinski about "redefining success beyond money and power"? I thought about this question before our panels began, as well as later on, when I was in front of a room full of influential CEOs, leaders and some of the most well-educated and powerful people in New York City.
I realized that although many convergences and coincidences had enabled me to be there, two elements stood out: 1) My own potential and the strength Claire has taught me to possess, and 2) other people's kindness, generosity, and support.
When I moved to Chicago, a church community came together to support our family and make sure that I was supported academically. Some people volunteered to teach me math and science, others English, and others how to play piano. I am where I am because of their support and encouragement. I am an example of what other refugees can achieve if they are given opportunity, mentorship and financial support.
Even though my background was completely different from the other speakers on my panel at The Third Metric, I did not feel lonely sitting up there. Instead, I felt fortunate because I had the opportunity to share my thoughts and experiences regarding the meaning of "success" beyond money and power.
As I reflected on where I come from, geographically and personally, I realized that if we lived in a world where money, power and individual achievement alone defined success, my story would be impossible. The success I have achieved suggests that humans are meant to do the impossible. To achieve the impossible, we are meant to work in unison, not in isolation.
Through cooperating and offering each other kindness and support, we achieve success as individuals and communities. The panel questions propelled me to think that in some ways, overcoming struggles and the experience of lacking money and power are part of the equation for success. The hardship I endured shaped my sense of purpose, passion, and understanding of how we must leverage our success, education, and power to build a safer and more peaceful world.
In a refugee camp, you have to rely on all of your instincts to survive. You wake up in the morning and have no idea if you are going to eat; you have to adopt carefully calculated measures to survive. For example, if you are lucky enough to have access to water, you have to be careful. You look at the level of water in your bucket and make sure not to drink too much because you will end up having to walk for five hours to fetch more. After walking several exhausting miles to reach the water pump, you are likely to find long waiting lines at all the pumps. Living that lifestyle is certainly a struggle, but it gives people a different, elevated intelligence, a way of living and understanding life that cannot be learned in a classroom.
People always ask, how can I help? I have been fortunate to work with several organizations working to empower refugee youth in Africa and in the United States. These organizations include Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS) in New Haven, CT; Yale Refugee Project; Refugee Transitions; GirlForward; and, most recently, the Alliance for Refugee Youth Support and Education (ARYSE).
ARYSE is a young organization whose mission is to "assist resettled refugee youth in becoming confident, engaged and productive members of American society and beyond." The founders of ARYSE, two young Brown University alumni, believe that, if provided with the right tools, refugee youth have the potential to be the next generation of compassionate, globally-minded leaders. They recognize the transition of refugee youth to the United States is fraught with academic and social obstacles that make it hard for them to excel in school as well as realize their potential as individuals and immigrants. ARYSE thus helps resettled refugee youth actualize their own potential and thrive, as I am doing.
ARYSE is giving refugee youth tools. It provides the kinds of support and resources that enabled me to be in the position I am today. But perhaps most importantly, ARYSE is working to ensure that refugees have the opportunity to join us at the table. We -- those of us interested in The Third Metric -- can help refugees by joining and supporting organizations and movements like ARYSE who recognize refugees as valuable and necessary contributors in conversations about what can take place beyond power and money.
I, along with many refugees before me, have proven that it is possible for us to be leaders of The Third Metric. As refugees, we have survived some of the worst mental, physical and spiritual conditions that one can imagine. We had to be our own psychologists and teachers. Because of this, we can help others understand how to survive losing someone, everyone and everything. War survivors and refugees alike have something -- words and wisdom -- to offer those who lead relatively comfortable lives. We are givers. There is so much to learn from the resilience, courage, and intelligence we have developed through struggle. As a result of including refugees as leaders at the table, we will have the opportunity to talk about what can be done to better the world.
Imagine if there were over a thousand of us refugee leaders. Survival elevates us to a new dimension and creates great potential for leadership. If seated at the table, we will not make decisions that result in subjugating people to the same terrible circumstances we suffered through.
Welcoming and accepting refugees whose lives have been robbed from them is so important. Refugees are going to be the next generation of leaders who shape the United States, their own countries of origin and beyond. We, more than anybody else, understand the value of peace, and are going to be leaders that promote it.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power," which took place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.