Each year on June 20th, World Refugee Day recognizes the resilience of forcibly displaced people across the globe. Commentator William Holston says refugees are closer to you than you know.
In 1933, Hitler became the chancellor of Germany and began fierce persecution against Jews. This was an opportunity for the United States, because until 1941, German policy permitted Jews to emigrate. There was, however, no international or American legal system to deal with political refugees.
In 1938, this lack of relief resulted in tragedy when 937 German refugees on the SS St. Louis were not permitted to land in Cuba or the United States, but instead returned to Europe, where many perished.
In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, providing "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries, asylum from persecution." In 1951, the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees provided a definition of refugee as someone who has a well-founded fear of persecution because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion; is outside his or her country of origin; and unable or unwilling to return there, for fear of persecution.
In the United States, this international law was fleshed out with the Refugee Act of 1980. Since then, the United States has admitted approximately 3 million refugees. The admissions included cold war refugees fleeing communist countries and 100,000 Southeast Asian refugees in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
Annual refugee admissions are now capped at 70,000. So far this year, approximately 37,000 have entered the United States, including 3,448 in Texas, the largest influx in any state.
Those numbers do not include asylum seekers who meet the refugee definition, but whose status was not determined prior to arriving in the United States. What would force someone to leave everything they hold dear and come to Dallas? For over 20 years, I’ve heard their stories: women fleeing sexual assault in the Congo; religious minorities from Eritrea facing torture and jail; and pro-democracy activists fleeing prison from Rwanda.
It’s terrifying for many simply to get here. While refugees resettled by refugee resettlement agencies have an orderly process of arrival, Asylum Seekers often experience a perilous journey here. Hondurans fleeing gang and drug violence face the risk of rape and abduction traveling here through Mexico. One client’s brother went missing in Mexico, a target of drug cartels.
Refugees face a daunting task even after arriving in Dallas. Professionally, they must start over.
I know a nurse from Cameroon, required to begin the licensing process again. A human rights lawyer from the Congo’s first job here was cleaning hotel rooms. Refugees also face the task of learning a new language. And many have been forced by circumstances to leave family behind.
These stories should change how we look at people in our city. Next time you are in a 7-11, remember the Ethiopian waiting on you might have been a pro-democracy activist. Your cab driver might be a torture survivor. The person carrying your groceries could be one of the Sudanese Lost Boys.
In the 1940s we refused to welcome refugees, sending them to their deaths. But we said never again. We meant that. Right?
William Holston is president of the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas.