World Refugee Day: Turning Tragedy into Opportunity

By Oriana Luquetta, Pickering Fellow at the Department of Public Affairs at the United States Mission to the European Union

(Featured Image: Cmacauley)

Every day, the world is confronted with gut wrenching images of refugees trying to make it to Europe by crossing the Mediterranean in makeshift boats and rafts. In the first half of 2016 alone, more than 2,500 refugees have been reported dead or missing trying to make the perilous journey.[1] Others remain in refugee camps in countries such as Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. The UN estimates that currently some 65.3 million people worldwide are forcibly displaced, of whom 21.3 million are considered refugees [2]. Over half of all refugees come from just three war torn countries: Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan. Refugees worldwide share important characteristics – they all have been seperated from homes, families, and communities. They all have experienced loss and face uncertain futures. And they all look to the rest of the world, for support, for hope.

“It’s almost unfathomable that nearly 60 million men, women and children are now displaced inside and outside of their countries.”-Secretary Kerry, World Refugee Day [3]

Although the current refugee flow from the Middle East and Northern Africa to Europe has been labeled a crisis, the refugee issue has been a lasting tragedy throughout history that the world needs to confront. The United Nations therefore labeled June 20thWorld Refugee Day.” According to United Nations (UN) Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, it is a day where we should “recall our common humanity, celebrate tolerance and diversity and open our hearts to refugees everywhere”[4]. The UN General Assembly selected this date in 2001 as it marked the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. [5] This document, signed by 144 State parties, defined the term ‘refugee’ and outlines the rights of the displaced, as well as the legal obligations of States to protect them.

Secretary Kerry Speaks with Syrian Refugees at the Za’atri Refugee Camp in Jordan, July 18, 2013 (Source: U.S. Department of State)

The United States has a longstanding history of welcoming refugees. In 1948, the U.S. Congress passed the nation’s first refugee legislation: the Displaced Persons Act,which granted residency for more than 250,000 displaced Europeans over a four-year period. Since 1975, the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) has welcomed over 3.2 million refugees from around the world. Besides granting asylum to a large number of refugees, the U.S. is the largest single donor to many international organizations aiding refugees such as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) [7], the International Organization for Migration (IOM) [8], the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) [9], the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)[10], and the World Food Program [11], as well as a number of other humanitarian organizations who provide assistance to vulnerable communities around the world. Last year, the U.S. humanitarian assistance contributions worldwide were more than $6 billion. This year during the UN General Assembly, President Obama will organize a Leaders’ Summit on Refugees in order to generate increased support for refugees.

World Refugee Day is a solemn occasion for the United States to join our partners in the international community in recognizing the dignity, value, and potential of every one of these lives.  It is a time to recall this Nation’s proud tradition of providing support to those who are most vulnerable, and a moment to challenge ourselves to continue being as generous and resourceful as we can in meeting their needs. (Statement by President Obama on World Refugee Day 2015)[12]

Related: Listen to an interview with Amy Wilson, Humanitarian Affairs and Migration officer at the U.S. Mission to the EU on the Global Refugee Crisis.

Refugees have long played an important role in American history, and many have contributed significantly to its prosperity in areas such as science, art, technology, sports, but also in the United States Government. In light of World Refugee Day, this blog post would like to highlight three high-ranking members of the U.S. Government who came to the United States as refugees: former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger, and Louisiana Congressman Anh “Joseph” Cao.

Madeleine Albright

Madeleine Albright (source U.S. Department of State)

On January 23, 1997, Mrs. Albright was sworn in as the 64th Secretary of State after a unanimous confirmation by the U.S. Senate. She was the first female to lead the State Department. Born in Czechoslovakia, she and her family escaped Nazi persecution and reached the United States in 1948. Many of her relatives who stayed in Europe, including her grandparents, died in concentration camps. At 11 years old, Mrs. Albright settled with her family in Denver, Colorado where her father taught at the University of Denver. Mrs. Albright went on to pursue a career in the U.S. government, including as the advisor of the Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988. President Bill Clinton nominated her as the Permanent Representative to the United Nations in 1993, and Secretary of State a few years later.

Mrs. Albright has continuously advocated for refugees and has called for action on the migration crisis. Regarding the U.S. proud history of admitting refugees, she recently wrote in Time Magazine, “We have always been a generous nation, and we have in place a rigorous process for refugee resettlement that balances our generosity with our need for security. It works, and it should not be stopped or paused.”

See Madeleine Albright’s Official State Department Biography here.

Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger and Hillary Clinton, Washington DC, Apr. 2011 (Source U.S. Department of State)

Born in Fuerth, Germany, Mr. Henry Kissinger and his family escaped Nazi persecution and came to the U.S. in 1938. Mr. Kissinger served in the U.S. Army and went on to study in Harvard College where he received his Bachelors, Masters and Doctoral degrees. He remained at this institution as the Director of Harvard International Seminar and as faculty member. On September 22, 1973, Mr. Henry Kissinger was sworn in as the 56th Secretary of State where he served until 1977. Mr. Kissinger also served as the Assistant to President Richard Nixon for National Security Affairs from 1969 to 1975, thereby becoming the first person ever to serve as both Secretary of State and National Security Advisor at the same time. He continued in these roles under President Gerald Ford.

Mr. Kissinger continues to advocate for humanitarian efforts in the current migration crisis. He recently spoke of his own refugee story with the International Rescue Committee (hyperlink)[13], where he shared “When you live in a totalitarian state, it’s an uprooting of whatever ties you had formed. And so I know what this is like.”

Mr. Kissinger and Mrs. Madeleine Albright were among several dozen signatories of a petition made to the U.S. Congress after the 2015 Paris Attacks, stating, “We believe that America can and should continue to provide refuge to those fleeing violence and persecution without compromising the security and safety of our nation.”

See Henry Kissinger’s Official State Department Biography Here.

 Rep. Anh Joseph Cao

Rep. Anh Joseph Cao (Source Wikipedia)

 Mr. Anh Joseph Cao was elected as the congressional representative for Louisiana’s 2nd congressional district in 2009. Mr. Cao was born in 1967 in Saigon, where he spent his early childhood in the midst of the Vietnam War. His father was taken as a prisoner during the war. Mr. Cao escaped with his two sisters to the United States in 1975. He did not see his parents again for 16 years. He earned a degree in physics from Baylor University in Texas and a Master of Philosophy degree at Fordham University.

He later moved to Washington, D.C. where he became a strong advocate for refugees. He was then selected to become member of the National Advisory Council of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops where he addressed women’s rights in the Church, social justice, and child abuse. Mr. Cao was a member of several caucuses as congressman, including the Human Rights Caucus. He is the founding member of the American Engagement Caucus. Mr. Cao has won the “Exemplary Leadership Award” given by Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi and the Activism and Fairness Award given by USPA ACC. Today, Mr. Cao practices law at a firm whose mission is to “To serve the legal needs of clients with strength, integrity, and competence.”

See Anh “Joseph” Cao’s Official Biography here

Mrs. Madeleine Albright, Mr. Henry Kissinger, and Mr. Anh Joseph Cao are just a few examples of strong refugees who have shown resilience in times of adversity. After leaving their home countries in times of turbulence and war, they traveled to the U.S. and pursued careers in public service. Whether or not people support their policies and political beliefs, they can all agree that their contributions to American History serve to remind us of the importance of inclusion, tolerance, and diversity.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s