A day to put ourselves in a refugee’s shoes

Alan KurdiA Turkish coast guard carries the body of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian migrant who drowned in the Aegean Sea. AP photo.

Welcoming the stranger is a universal value, MIRA intern Beyza Burcak writes. Yet years into a global refugee crisis, our actions still fall far short of the need.

“If there were guns pointed at your children, would you not flee also for your safety? Do we not owe people enough humanity to stand with them when they flee for their lives?”

As Westy Egmont, director of the Immigrant Integration Lab at Boston College, challenged his audience with those questions, a screen behind him showed the iconic photo of a Turkish coast guard carrying the body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi. The boy had fled war-torn Syria with his family and drowned in the Aegean Sea during the dangerous journey to freedom and safety in 2015.

The photograph – and Alan’s story – put a human face on the global refugee crisis: more than 65 million people displaced by persecution, war or violence. And yet here we were two years later, still trying to find an answer to the same question: How can we make a meaningful impact on the lives of these refugees?

Catholic Charities of Boston, which resettles about 200 refugees each year, organized “Standing with Refugees” on June 17 to foster dialogue and reflection in the lead-up to World Refugee Day 2017. What I learned is that there is no one right answer to that pressing question.

In fact, the answers are many. The answers have no race, religion and ethnicity. The answer is us.

Monsignor Robert J. Vitillo, Secretary General of International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) noted that “welcoming the stranger” is our common value as human beings. It has been with us throughout history, as both a political and religious value, from ancient times until this very moment.

It is that value, Monsignor Vitillo emphasized, that drives ICMC’s incredible services to refugees all around the world; “We serve to refugees not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic,” he said.

As an immigrant Muslim woman, his statement reminded me of the teachings of my own faith: “Worship God; join not any partners with Him; Be good to your parents, to relatives, to orphans, to those in need, to neighbors who are near, to neighbors who are strangers, to the companion by your side, to travelers in need…” (Qur’an, 4:36).

MaryTruongMary Truong, executive director of the Massachusetts Office of Refugees and Immigrants, shares her personal story.

I was also struck by the very moving story of Mary Truong, executive director of the Massachusetts Office of Refugees and Immigrants, who shared her own journey as a young refugee from Vietnam to America.

It started in 1975, she said, before the communist takeover, when her father said to his nine children: “Let’s pack up and leave in search of freedom.”

Their journey was not easy, because they had nothing. After moving to Boston, Truong and her siblings all had to work while they went to school. All nine graduated from college, and seven, including Truong, earned graduate degrees.

“I did a lot of waitressing, financial aid counselling and moved on to banking and health care,” she recalled. Today she leads the agency that oversees refugee resettlement in Massachusetts and supports the work of non-profits such as Catholic Charities.

Last year alone, 2,433 refugees from 46 countries were resettled in the state. Truong said her agency’s primary goal is to enable refugees and immigrants to fully participate in and contribute to their community.

Truong’s inspiring story of how she arrived in the United States and the person she has become shows why it’s so important to advocate for refugees – both for them and for the community as a whole.

After the panel discussion, we were given a little taste of how it is to be a refugee in an arrival camp, with an interactive simulation called “In A Refugee’s Shoes.” Each of us was assigned a role in a refugee family, and we went through the whole process in groups of three or five: from registration, to health screening and school, to processing by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The simulation showed us how difficult the process can be, starting with a registration table staffed by someone who only spoke Spanish. There were long wait times for medical attention and for food. My group even experienced being turned away because one of our “family members” showed a little impatience during our medical examination process.

With denial letters in our hands, we left the simulation with a bitter taste – and a powerful reminder to be more compassionate and advocate to make refugees’ lives better all around the world. 

– Beyza Burcak, a Turkish journalist and graduate student at the University of Massachusetts–Boston, is a summer intern at MIRA. She tweets @BeyzaBurcak.

Dea medical deskMIRA intern Dea Dodi (second from right) goes through the medical review process during the simulation. Her "family" was rejected.