The afternoon of Friday January 27, 2017 I experienced one of the most empowering events at the United Nations Headquarters. It was the 18th annual Committee on Teaching About the United Nations (CTAUN) conference titled: Refugees the 21st Century Challenge. The conference served as a platform for civil society members, from all over the world, to interact with experts and learn accurate information about refugees who are often falsely portrayed by some as being dangerous and unpredictable. It was an afternoon of exploring how to accept others and work together to break stigmas.
The conference looked at refugees from all angles, giving an in-depth overview of the process one must go through to come to the US and what happens during resettlement. Speakers gave insight into what has caused a surge in refugee populations and how we as the global community can work to find new solutions. Overall the conference was very interesting and informative; it painted a positive picture of the impacts refugees have on diversity and the country as a whole.
Though we heard statistics from esteemed sources such as the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, Human Rights Watch and the International Rescue Committee, the most impactful part of the conference was hearing personal experiences from young refugees. These speakers were from all over the world, and while they may share the title “refugee,” they each had a different experience and a different story to tell.
Since this was a conference focusing on education and teaching, it was important to recognize a young woman who had been so greatly impacted by a mentor that she is now a year away from reaching her dream. Bahati Hategekimana, born in Rwanda, spent majority of her life in a refugee camp in Kenya; here she became close with one of the camp doctors who would become one of her biggest sources of supports in achieving her dream to go into the medical field. As Bahati grew, she came to the realization that her chances of achieving her dream were slim, not only because of where she was but also because of her gender. Nevertheless, because of the support of her parents and the camp doctor (from a young age), Bahati is close to completing her nursing degree and reaching her childhood goal.
A different panel composed of five young adult refugees shared insight into the lives of young people who have not been as fortunate as Bahati. Many of the panelists told us how their families had been broken up and forced to flee to different parts of the world. Most have not been reunited for one reason or another. Though the stories they told were heartbreaking, no one cried. The audience could sense the resilience that the each panelist had and rather than cry, we applauded. Each one spoke on the systematic and programmatic injustices that had led to being resettled in America and what that resettlement meant for them – physically, emotionally, and mentally.
One panelist that stood out was Maher Mahmood, a young man from Iraq who had been resettled in Connecticut. He told the story of when he was young; his mother had bought him a camera, a powerful tool that in a place like Iraq can be quite dangerous. Maher told us how he wanted to use his camera to show the world what was going on in Iraq, so be began taking photographs in the hopes of making a difference. Eventually, he was spotted by someone who did not appreciate his photographs which led to his camera being destroyed and himself being beaten. However his drive to expose similar injustices only grew. Maher went on to join the US armed forces in Iraq where he served as an interpreter. Once his services were complete he was granted a special visa to come to America. He joked that most of his English is the result of using Google Translate in his job and he often apologizes when he mispronounces words stating “...that’s my Google accent...” Maher ended his speech by telling the crowd that he is trying to get back into photography since showing the world injustices is the best way to fuel action.
In today’s society and most notably, in today’s United States administration, these positive impacts from refugees tend to be ignored and more often than not are unrecognized altogether. Media doesn’t tell the story of Bahati who wants to provide medical aid or of Maher who helped US soldiers in Iraq. Due to the stigma and hateful rhetoric, Americans will never be able to picture face of Manal Alawasaj a refugee from Iraq who found out, right before going up to take part in the panel, that she had passed the Naturalization Test and was now an American citizen. The point of the conference wasn’t to solve the refugee situation, but to highlight how becoming better educated can change the all-too-familiar conversation.
The afternoon of Friday January 27, 2017 I left the UN feeling empowered. I left thinking about the clients I had worked with during my time as a case manager at a refugee resettlement agency in New Hampshire. Walking home, I thought of how, because of people like those at that conference, my clients wouldn’t need to be scared or ashamed of their backgrounds, and how sharing their stories could mean creating a more positive dialogue. I thought of how I had spent some days interviewing clients in order to help bring their family members to America and filing paperwork in hopes of hearing good news. After hearing from other resettlement agencies from up and down the East Coast, I felt as though my dream to return to refugee work would be achievable in a matter of months.
The evening of Friday January 27, 2017 I learned of President Trump’s executive order and my heart broke. A travel ban issued by the commander-in-chief that prevents immigrants and refugees from entering America, a country founded by immigrants and refugees. A travel ban that was sure to be applauded by many and that says to the country “it is fine to be intolerant to people different from you.” Feeling down, but not out, I hoped that as human beings we would step up and speak out against these actions. Friday night, was my time to wallow, but starting Saturday was my time and our time to come together, take action and remember that love trumps hate.