Refugees I have known

Cover of "A World Made New: Eleanor Roose...

Cover via Amazon

One of the ideas I gleaned from Samantha Power’s Problem From Hell is that most of the time, genocide is awfully difficult to define until after the fact. Another is that we in the West mostly don’t know what is happening until it has happened.  This is true even if we think we are well informed. This insight lead me to think we need a less complicated word and definition to describe uncivil behavior.

At the Census Bureau, I had a friend, a co-worker, who was a refugee from Burundi who had seen some awful things.  He would never talk about the specifics of what he had witnessed, only becoming very sad and saying his father had died. Although she does not discuss it very much, I  realized reading Power’s book that Burundi had the same Tutsi and Hutu conflict as central African neighbor, Rwanda with much of the same result.

I began to think of all the refugees I have known over my lifetime, beginning with the Polish kid in my fourth grade class. Karl didn’t stay long, he spoke no English, and he seemed frightened out of his wits most of the time.  He never took his coat off, sitting silently at the back of the room as if he would flee at any moment. One day he was gone.

This would have been about 1950, just after WWII when millions of refugees were resettling in the US and other places in the Western Hemisphere.

In high school, I met a young Cuban attending the local divinity school near our house. My teacher, who had heard him speak at her church, brought him to the high school to talk about his dreams. He aspired to become a chaplain in Castro’s Army.

I asked him to come to our house for dinner, which he did. He told me after dinner that night, I was more beautiful than heaven. I have wondered since, what became of him. He was so idealistic, and no one knew then Castro was a Communist.

Later in life, one of my bosses, a Cuban Refugee told me he had been brought to the US in the Peter Pan airlift.

While I was a military wife, I met many military wives, women who had been refugees in their own countries (mostly Japan, Korea, and Germany) and married American service members.

For several years, Gloria, a Spanish girl, whose family had fled Franco and moved to Morocco during the Spanish Civil War, was my best friend.  She met Virgil, her Marine husband when stationed on Embassy duty in Tangiers.

Years later, another girlfriend, Marianne, who was  Armenian-American, told me her grandparents had been buried in the sand up to their necks and decapitated by Turkish soldiers.  

I could go on and on recounting my experiences with refugees, and their children (like my husband David). I have known many Jewish survivors of the WWII camps as well as their children (synagogue 3 blocks away). 

But I will summarize my life’s experiences, including my private life, graduate school, especially at Georgetown University, and at work, especially the Census Bureau, which led me to meet and form friendships with refugees from Iran, Nigeria, Nicaragua, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam, Somalia, China, Chile, Argentina, Lebanon, Vietnam, and almost anywhere you can name (and some you may never have heard of). 

One of the five nuns murdered in Central America, probably by Sandinistas, was a classmate at my undergraduate college, so sometimes I have known individuals who put themselves in harm’s way…journalists, NGO workers, Peace Corps volunteers, military and missionaries. 

After a lifetime of knowing, schooling and working with, and living near resettled refugees and their children, plus the education I have received, books I have read, traveling I have done, etc. I have concluded that at times, the world is a difficult ugly place, mostly owing to the in-group/out-group mentality of many individuals. The good old USA is the only place I would ever want to live. (We are not perfect but we are given to introspection and facing our shortcomings.) I have also concluded that no matter how awful conditions are in some other place, the USA cannot be the world’s policeman (although it should participate in UN actions).

Group identity politics are detrimental to good behavior, and I hate them. In almost every instance of genocide, one group has become determined to destroy another group owing to their ethnicity, tribal affiliation or religion. Sometimes, as in the case of Bosnia, these warring people had peacefully (mostly) co-existed for generations.

Refugees from Sudan's Darfur Region

Refugees from Sudan’s Darfur Region (Photo credit: Government Press Office (GPO))

I think, Eleanor Roosevelt had the right idea: the UN is the answer to settling universal as well as local disputes involving human rights issues (much of the time–this does not mean we should never criticize the UN, especially the World Bank). The US must continue to be a strong member of this organization, and I hope Samantha Power is the right person for the job of US ambassador to the UN.

My next book: A World Made New, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by Mary Ann Glendon. 





9 thoughts on “Refugees I have known

  1. I agree with you totally. We cannot keep being a unilateral big brother.

    Did you know that Mrs. Roosevelt’s daily column is now on line. Fascinating. There’s a link in my sidebar.


  2. The UK is a pretty good place for welcoming refugees, as well. We are a tolerant people. My own ancestors were refugees from the Irish famine.

    I knew a refugee from Idi Amin’s Uganda. A quiet, sweet boy who had a terrible limp and whose family had been murdered. He became a minister, I think.


    • The UK is a great place and if I was a refugee, I would want to go there also. FYI half of all Jamaicans who leave Jamaica go to the UK, the other half emigrate to the US. They are economic refugees I think.


  3. Hear, hear! I remember we had a refugee from Hungary arrive at our school when I was in second or third grade. He’d fled the communists in 1956, and he became the janitor in our school. Don’t remember much about him except he did speak a little English, seemed like a nice guy, and also seemed very grateful for his new “opportunity.”


  4. Powerful post. I had no idea about the Peter Pan airlift, and it was going on during the time I was finishing high school and starting college. The breadth of your experience, awareness of and concern about the political, social and moral realities of our planet makes me cringe at how limited mine have been.


  5. I like and agree with what you said: The US cannot be the policeman of the world. Stay out of civil wars, because it could make the conflagration bigger and worse.


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