By Adelma Jakupovic
Since August of 2015, I have volunteered at the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in Washington, D.C. As part of my work with the U.S Protection Unit, I help provide basic information services to vulnerable populations under the UNHCR mandate—asylum seekers, refugees, and stateless individuals.
Most of the people contacting our unit are asylum seekers and refugees held in immigration detention. Contrary to media reports that often characterize asylum seekers and refugees as economic opportunists, potential criminals, and a threat to U.S. national security, they are the most vulnerable of all people, victims of direct persecution.
Not long ago, I spoke with a man whose wife and children were killed by an extremist group in Nigeria. He was forced to flee to save his life, running from country to country before reaching the United States. Another person also made the long journey to the United States after losing his family to gang violence in El Salvador. He did not speak English or know anyone in the United States and was shaken by the trauma of having those closest to him killed. And just last week, a family requesting our assistance left their homeland seeking safety from political persecution. They expressed concern that if they remained in their home country, they would run the risk of being imprisoned, tortured, or killed.
The common denominator here is that these asylum seekers have run out of options. None of them chose to be refugees. But through no fault of their own they have been forced to abandon family, friends, homes, and possessions and cross the border of their own country in search of safety in another.
Refugees do not risk their lives unless they are desperate to survive. How many of us could honestly say that if we were confronted with similar circumstances we would not do the same? I imagine that we would all do what is absolutely necessary to restore the very rights of which we have been violently robbed.
And here’s another reality check: None of these asylum seekers harbor any ill will toward the United States. In fact, the reason many seek refuge in our country is because they see the United States as a beacon of hope—a place to live peacefully and securely. This is the sentiment of my own family who fled Bosnia to escape ethnic cleansing during the Balkan wars.
Yet in our current political environment this reality goes largely unnoticed. Some governors are trying to make it impossible to resettle refugees in the United States, particularly those from Syria, despite security assurances.
It appears that sometimes the debate can be so centered on the potential threat posed by refugees or how many the United States should accept, that we lose sight of their humanity and our responsibility to help them—not just because we are the mightiest country on earth, with the best record for welcoming refugees, but also because we are human beings. The plight of Syrian refugees is not just a European problem; rather, it is a world problem, something that each of us should care about and that requires our compassion and empathy.
We have to decide what kind of country we want to be. Is it one in which anyone viewed as different is questioned and unwelcome? Or are we a nation that lives by its best traditions—inclusive and open to those looking to make America their second home? The United States has a longstanding tradition of welcoming refugees, regardless of their nationality, race, or creed. If there was ever a time for our country to open its door to refugees it is now.
Disclaimer: This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the author. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, the contents of this blog.