Putting it in Perspective: Sharing stories of refuge

Posted by Susannah Glick on Mon, Oct 17, 2011 at 10:57 am

The hardships and struggles faced by refugees never fully resonated with me until this past August, when I attended UNHCR’s first-ever Refugee Congress. During this event, I had the privilege of meeting remarkable refugees who, despite their difficult pasts, are the most inspiring individuals I have ever met.

The Refugee Congress united 60 refugees and asylees, ten for each decade of international refugee protection. From Maine to California, refugees and asylees of all backgrounds and origins came together in Washington, D.C., on August 3-4 to discuss the refugee protection and meet with their Members of Congress to share their stories and advocate on issues that are important to them. The Congress asked for volunteers to help escort individuals to their meetings on Capitol Hill. As a HIAS intern, I was fortunate to be able to volunteer and I spent the day accompanying Sahar, a refugee from Iraq, to various meetings.

Iraq is a place I know little about. Aside from the news stories, I have barely read anything about Iraq’s rich culture, customs, or people. In fact, before the Refugee Congress, I had never met someone who was from Iraq. Sahar is an amazing woman with an amazing story. In Iraq, Sahar worked for the Ministry of Defense while her husband worked as an electrical engineer and contractor for an American construction company. Because their jobs were affiliated with the United States, insurgent groups began to threaten Sahar and her family. Due to continued persecution, Sahar’s family was forced to split up. Her husband and several of their children fled to Egypt, while Sahar and her other children sought refuge in northern Iraq. Sahar’s family remained separated until they were all reunited in the United States. Even though Sahar held an esteemed position in Iraq, it was hard for her to find work in America that matched her qualifications. After years of hard work and determination, Sahar now works as a refugee case manager and her husband once again works as an electrical engineer.

During the time Sahar articulated her story to both her Representative and a Senator from Oklahoma, she never once complained. Instead, she was positive, hopeful, and beamed with gratitude for being able to live with her family in a country where she can be free and not have to fear for her life. From fleeing from the Nazis in Poland in 1941 to fleeing the war in Sudan in the 1990s, Sahar’s and each delegate’s story opened my eyes to the struggles and unfortunate realities faced by populations all over the world. However, no matter the terrors endured, the months without shelter, or their unimaginable fears, not one individual at the Refugee Congress ever concluded their story with anything but words of hope.

Until the Congress, I never thought that my ancestors were refugees too. Fleeing religious persecution in Eastern Europe, my family took a huge risk and moved to a foreign land with different customs, social norms, and language. Just like Sahar and the others, they left everything they knew to seek freedom and safety. I strongly encourage you to reach out to one of the thousands of refugees living in your community and listen to their stories. I am positive that they will inspire you too.

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