How far would you walk for freedom?
Would you walk 2,371 miles?
That’s how far a girl I met last week walked to get to the United States. She traveled alone.
For the last two weeks, I’ve had the privilege of working on a theatre project with high school students who came to this country as refugees from Somalia, Nepal, Rwanda, Mexico, and Guatemala. That is where I met this remarkable teenager and others. The girl, let’s call her Ana, walked here by herself. She was met by family in the U.S. when she arrived. I do not know Ana’s full story. She looks down a lot. Hides behind long, beautiful, black hair. She does not make eye contact. Ana’s journey to safety was a long one. Is a long one. It’s clear that after only a few months, she still does not feel safe.
There are other students in the class from Cameroon, Liberia, and Jamaica. Presumably, their parents came for a better life for their children. According to Unicef, "children make up less than one third of the global population, but almost half among the world's refugees in 2020. Today, nearly 1 in 3 children living outside their countries of birth are child refugees; for adults, the proportion is less than 1 in 20."
We’ve been rehearsing a play in their summer school class to recognize World Refugee Day, June 20. The piece I wrote, “Departures and Arrivals,” attempts to give the audience the feeling of what it would be like to travel to a new country where they do not speak the language, understand the customs, and are alone. The students/actors speak in their native languages, which should disorient the largely English speaking audience. That confusion, that lack of understanding is meant to give a small glimpse of what it must be like to be a refugee in a new country.
Our play is set on a plane and in an airport, but refugees in the past and today came/come by foot or boat. When I asked how many kids had been on a plane, only half raised their hand.
Raise your hand if your “people” came to the U.S. by land, boat, or plane.
In other words, you or your ancestors felt they had very little choice but to leave their home country and travel thousands of miles from everyone and everything they knew. Perhaps they left due to war, other violence, such as that produced by religious intolerance, or maybe they fled due to famine, or natural disasters.
Me, I’m a “mutt,” but thanks to one of those home DNA kits I was able to confirm Irish and Scottish ancestry. My Irish ancestors fled famine in their homeland. When they arrived in New York, they were not welcomed with open arms. Instead, signs read, “No Irish Allowed,” and “Irish Need Not Apply”.
Meet My Cousin Albert
My DNA test also revealed that I have almost as much Jewish blood as I do Irish. The test revealed I’m part Ashkenazi Jew. “My people” were always seeking refuge. Some 3.5 million or 40 percent of Ashkenazi Jews are descended from just four “founding mothers” who lived in Europe 1,000 years ago. The mothers were part of a small group who founded the Ashkenazi Jewish community, which was established in Europe as a result of migration from the Near East.
I also have some German and French ancestry. At the beginning of WW I, many Germans and German-Americans, out of fear of being persecuted in the United States, changed their surnames to make them sound less German. There were even “Stein breaking” events and one town in Ohio killed “German” dogs. Check out this short PBS video describing the attacks on Germans in the U.S. during WW I. But it wasn’t the first time there was anti-German sentiment in the U.S. We think my husband’s family changed their name when they emigrated in the eighteen hundreds – going from Koenig to King. People seeking refuge are willing to leave behind anything – including their family name.
The DNA test also revealed that I’m almost seventy percent English. Aside from the Pilgrims who fled religious persecution – and I highly doubt any of my relatives came over on the Mayflower -- the English were colonizers not refugees. However, while some of my ancestors lived lives of privilege -- in the sense of having lived their lives where they were born – roughly thirty percent of my ancestors did not. Primarily, my family members who came to the United States were refugees. People seeking a brighter future for their descendants. Me. My children. Their children. My grand-daughter can claim she is 5th generation American on her father's side – recognizing, of course, that only the Native American population is indigenous. The rest of us are all a "bunch of immigrants". And while not all immigrants are refugees, all refugees are immigrants. Like most of your people. Like mine.
If your ancestors found refuge in the U.S., they were fortunate. While there are more than twenty-five million refugees seeking asylum, only one percent – yes, one percent – find it. The rest live lives of limbo in refugee camps. Here’s a fun fact I learned this week: The Nepali students in our program are the children of Bhutanese, who fled persecution in that country and raised their children in Nepal, many in refugee camps, until they could make it to the United States or elsewhere. So, while the parents identify as Bhutanese, the children call Nepal their homeland– even though they may have been born or raised in a refugee camp there.
There's No Place Like Home
Then there are the refugees who wander from country to country. It's a sad irony that there are Palestinian refugees who have been displaced by Israelis who, in turn, sought refuge from anti-Semitism. Many Palestinians are forced to migrate again and again over their lifetime. Approximately half a million migrated to Syria, but then had to flee during the war there. Some found asylum in Jordan, while close to 300,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon. Lebanon has the largest per capita population of refugees in the world. As of 2020, the Lebanese government estimates their country hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees, according to Annera.org.
During the last few years, we heard about “caravans” of refugees headed to our southern border. Did you know that the U.S. is not even in the top ten of countries that help resettle refugees? Did you know that Syrians are the largest group of refugees in the world – and as far as I know, they aren’t entering through Mexico. Mexican refugees are not even in the top ten of refugees in the world. Take a look at the list here. I think you may be surprised. I know I was. Let's Talk Turkey If you watch the news in the U.S. – liberal or conservative, you probably have the idea that we take in more than “our fair share” of the world’s refugee population, but of that one-percent that finds a place to call “home,” they are more likely to do so in Turkey than in the U.S. Yes, Turkey. Turkey is the number one country to settle refugees.
Since the 1980 Refugee Act was enacted, the U.S. has had a cap on how many refugees we accept. No matter if there was a Democrat or Republican administration in leadership, that cap stayed at roughly 70,000 a year. However, the Trump administration played on American's xenophobia -- we have a tradition of this -- see above Irish and Germans.
In 2018, the cap was set at fifteen thousand. In March 2020, the CDC invoked Title 42 at the beginning of the pandemic, giving Border Patrol agents the authority to quickly expel migrants trying to enter the U.S.. Migrants expelled from the U.S. under Title 42 are returned to their home country or most recent transit country, they do not get to apply for asylum. Biden is seeking to end Title 42, but a federal judge in Louisiana blocked the removal of it in May. However, the CDC has ended the application of Title 42 for unaccompanied minors in March. In May 2022, the world reached a sobering milestone: the number of forcibly displaced people globally surpassed 100 million, or more than 1 per cent of the world’s population and equivalent to the 14th most populous country on the planet, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.
The kids I got to work with the last two weeks smile a lot. They greet me with a chorus of “hellos” when I walk in – something my college freshmen never do. Some can be very silly, while others are shy. Some have mastered English, while others are working on it. I look at them on stage singing “Stand by Me” – a little off key if I’m honest – and I find my eyes filling with tears. They represent the very best America has to offer: Refuge. And hope.
Writing prompt: What were the reasons your ancestors came to the U.S.? If you're indigenous, do you know your ancestors' migration history?