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Nowhere to go: Remembering the plight of refugees

Image: Dadaab Refugee Camp: 20 Years On
Somali mothers wait with their malnourished children at a clinic at a sprawling refugee camp in Dadaab, northeastern Kenya, on June 17.Dai Kurokawa / EPA

"It was not safe and I had nowhere to go." — Hiroe Nagase

These were the words I heard my mother speak as she remembered the day World War II  arrived on her doorstep. At just 16, she had emerged from a bomb shelter and saw virtually nothing left standing after the air raid that made her run for her life.

I imagined her terror in that chaos, and tried to empathize with her feeling that she may not survive.

Still, only recently did I connect the experience of hearing her story in our living room in tiny Ashland, Oregon, to what motivates my constant effort to give voice to refugees of war, hunger, disease and especially genocide and ethnic cleansing.

I realize now that I don't see these refugees as people of another world but rather as us: our mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters and sons. They suffer the tragedies that have persistently haunted our human history, so persistently that it is reasonable to ask, how many among us aren't the progeny of refugees in one generation or another?  

Even today as I write this, refugees are fleeing from Syria into Turkey, from Yemen into Europe, from Sudan's north-south border at Abyei, just as we have seen refugees flee Rwanda, Kosovo, Congo, Burma, Darfur and Germany, to name just a few in our own time.

When, at age 12, I first heard about the Holocaust, what stunned me most was discovering that not only did people risk their own lives to save Jews, they risked their children's lives as well.

Imagine what a world it would be if every human being had that kind of courage. Those brave people who stood against Hitler must be the forerunners for the greater, more compassionate humankind we are evolving into. 

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In my own experience, nowhere is this compassion more evident than in the refugees themselves.

On the edge of Kosovo, I watched refugees fleeing into Macedonia, the sounds of war at their backs. But they were not safe even when they finally stopped to rest, with Macedonians pointing guns at them to stop them in their tracks. Yet, despite her desperate, weeping state, a woman who had nothing offered me a bite from her little can of food.

On the edge of Darfur, I met a black African woman who was pregnant when she and her little sister were attacked by an Arab militia. She told us that in order to save her sister, she sent her in the opposite direction; she waved her arms so the men would follow her instead. They did, and she suffered so terribly she barely survived. When I asked why she did it, she said, "My sister was too young to have such things happen to her." She didn't lose the baby, and as I took his photo in a refugee camp in neighboring Chad, I realized that at two years old, he was already not just a refugee, but a survivor.

And in Congo, where the deadliest war since World War II is still raging, I met Sifa. She was about 16 when she saw her mother and father killed. The killers then kidnapped her and chained her to a tree, and kept her tied there, using rape as a weapon of war. When she could no longer walk, they left her for dead. Men from a nearby village risked their lives to rescue her. She was, it turned out, pregnant, but she was so broken the baby died.

By the time I found her, she was in the operating room, where a doctor told me he was trying to repair all the physical damage that had been done. She looked deep into my eyes, her expression almost pleading. Now 18, shivering naked under a blanket, her hand was shaking violently from the cold and fear. I took her hand and held it, reassuring her as best I could until it was time for the doctor to begin.

Returning the next day, I found her in the recovering room, where she told me all that had happened. And so I asked her if she wanted revenge. And this is what she said:

“No. All I want is to rise from this bed and thank the people who rescued and took care of me.  And work for God to help others. And maybe if I am lucky someday, I will feel a mother’s love again.”

These refugees and internally displaced people have a lot to teach us about resilience and courage. They seem to embody what the author Elizabeth Kubler-Ross once wrote: “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

My mother was beautiful in this way, and helped move me to compassion. World Refugee Day is a reminder that there is no "us" and "them."  There is only us, one human family, connected in ways we sometimes forget.