Each year on June 20th, we pause to acknowledge World Refugee Day, and honor the unique strengths of those who have been forced to flee their homes—people who wait for years or sometimes decades for a place to call home again, or to reunite with loved ones separated by war, displacement and uncertainty. It’s also a day of remembrance of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers who perished in search of freedom around the world and to keep their memory alive.
The United States has a rich history of immigration—it is, after all, a nation built by immigrants. Some came to escape religious or political persecution, famine, war or discrimination. Others were brought here against their will, and struggled to regain their freedom and equality as Americans. Many immigrants came simply to make a better life for themselves and their families. Whatever the reason for their arrival or the means they used to arrive here, the result is that we live in a country that has benefited greatly through its diversity, and is known for its compassion in welcoming the stranger.
The U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program is a shining example of that compassion, and one of which I am proud to be a part. Congress established the Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) through the Refugee Act of 1980, since then the United States has welcomed more than 3 million refugees to America, through resettlement from over 80 countries, including Viet Nam, countries of the former Soviet Union, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Cuba, Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Bhutan.
Working in conjunction with federal, state and non-governmental agencies, the resettlement network includes faith-based and secular partners, members of the business communities, and an untold number of volunteers. For more than thirty years now, this humanitarian program has assisted the resettlement of some millions of refugees, through a true public-private partnership that succeeds in great part due to its community-based support and collaborations.
These refugees are among the lucky ones, selected for resettlement to the United States from more than 15 million refugees estimated in the world today. Many others are not so lucky; their journeys are much harder. For some, their journey is much shorter; sadly, many refugees don’t survive to tell their stories.
Every day, refugees from Somalia, Eritrea, and Sudan pay smugglers untold sums of money to board rickety boats, in an attempt—sometimes fatal—to cross the treacherous waters of the Red Sea or Gulf of Aden. Others walk—through Sudan, into Egypt, across the Sinai Peninsula—trying to reach a place of asylum and the chance of a safer tomorrow. En route, they are increasingly falling victim to kidnappers who demand ransoms from family members—in sums as high as $30,000—or simply slaughter them to harvest their organs, and leave their desecrated bodies behind in the desert. Today, we mourn for those who perished; we also hold a candle of hope for the living.
Yet despite the risk of drowning at sea, despite the risk of kidnapping and murder, and despite the high costs charged by the smugglers, refugees take that chance anyway—seeking freedom from civil war, from dictatorial regimes, from anarchy, from persecution. Refugees embody strength, perseverance, courage, and hope. Most of them would not have survived the journey otherwise.
Yet, many refugees embrace the opportunities that America affords them long before naturalization, opening businesses, buying homes, serving in our armed forces and National Guard—contributing to the successes of our communities and protecting our interests at home and abroad.
I believe in the humanitarian obligation of refugee assistance and resettlement. But more than that, I believe in the people we receive—the unlimited potential they bring with them to their new home, and all that they contribute to the U.S. as a nation. This is what Secretary Joseph Califano said in 1979, prior to the enactment of the Refugee Act:
“ . . . Just as our parents and grandparents enriched the United States, these new refugees are enriching this Nation. They are working hard, saving, trying. The burdens they place on our system of social services are manageable and temporary; what stands out is their eagerness to contribute.”
--- Testimony of Joseph A. Califano, Secretary, Department of Health, Education and Welfare, in support of the Refugee Act, May, 1979
This country was built by refugees, and it continues to get stronger because of the refugees it welcomes—not in spite of them.
If anyone says differently, then it’s clear that they haven’t met ever a refugee.
Eskinder Negash is the Director of Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), within the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. ORR provides people in need, including refugees, asylees, Cuban/Haitian entrants, victims of human trafficking, unaccompanied alien children, and survivors of torture, with critical resources to assist them in becoming integrated members of American society.