“If I’d been caught,” she said quietly, “I would have been sent back to North Korea where I would have faced prison, or possibly execution.” She had escaped into China, only to find that refugees were not exactly welcome there. “My parents (who had helped her, and a brother, escape) told the government that my brother and I were dead. For several years, they were closely watched because the government didn’t believe them, but it is somewhat better now.”
The young woman with a shy smile spoke through an interpreter at an event at Calvary Presbyterian Church, in recognition of World Refugee Day – which you may have missed, in the tsunami of news/tweets/rumors about suffering refugees, undesirable immigrants and assorted boundary walls and fences.
The young woman speaker eventually made it to Thailand, and from there to the U.S. where nonprofits such as the International Rescue Committee and Refugee Transitions are helping her piece together a life. It took her seven years. She does not expect ever to see her parents again. We were asked not to take pictures, to protect her.
At a later event on the same day another young woman spoke. Her English was immeasurably better than my Pashto or Dari would be if I studied really hard for the next 10 years. Born in 1992 into an educated Afghan family, she repeatedly cited having educated parents as setting her apart. Most Afghan women of her generation (as with other generations) face a life strictly limited to the confines of the family home. But by the time she was five, the Taliban had taken over and educating girls was forbidden. In her city there was one underground school where girls could learn to read and write, and she and her parents decided to risk it. During regular government inspections the children would hide textbooks in garbage cans. But she survived, and received a rudimentary education that was greatly expanded after 2011 when the U.S. entered Afghanistan. (“In our prayers, we gave thanks for the Americans,” she said. That was surprising, and gratifying, to this American reporter.) She came to the U.S. on a student visa several years ago. By the time she graduated it was clear that she could not return to her country – which has known nothing but war for forty years – to help young women and girls as her hopes and plans had been. So she became a refugee. A refugee is, by definition, “a person who has been forced to leave his or her country in order to escape war, famine, persecution or natural disaster.”
“So many things are hard,” the young woman from Afghanistan says. “For instance, pronunciation. You want to renew your ‘weesa,’ and they don’t know what you’re saying because it’s ‘visa.’” Other things are harder still. Because she was on a student visa, she could not work. After graduation she “couch-hopped,” staying wherever she could, “because the only people I knew were my professors and my classmates.” She has now applied for asylum — a process that also prohibits working for at least 150 days. She was fortunate to find a family who has taken her in, and she hopes to make a life in the U.S.
For many in the audience, it was hard to imagine the endless bureaucratic mazes refugees encounter and patiently endure — possibly because they often come from countries where government bureaucracy is a daily fact of life. It was even harder to imagine spending two or three years of one’s life (a minimum) or well over a decade (an average) in a refugee camp.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, 33,972 people are forced to flee their homes every day because of conflict and persecution. That is 33,972 people every day. There are, UNHCR reports, 65.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. That is sixty-five and three/tenths million homeless/stateless people. Human beings. Many of these are simply desperate to escape; a small percentage hope – and yearn – to return to their homeland if it can be safe (and livable) again.
The United States, a nation of immigrants (we won’t get into the viewpoint of Native Americans here) accepts a few thousand refugees per year.
This writer felt, at the end of the day, she should go home and count her blessings.
The Afghan woman, now – though a long way from citizenship still – an American woman, was asked what those in the audience could do to help.
“Support any of the nonprofits that work to help refugees,” she said. “If you have money, that’s good. But if not, you can give your time – or your prayers.”
But the big thing is, both of these refugees said, echoing the clergy of all faiths who have been speaking out in recent days, not only to give something, but simply to see other individuals not as ‘the other,’ but as members of the community of humankind we share.
Repeatedly, citizens and refugees alike said, somewhat wishfully, “Open your hearts.”