How well are the Rohingyan refugees settling into life in India and Bangladesh? Are Venezuelan asylum seekers proving successful in making it into the United States? How easy is it to get a green card as an immigrant or refugee now that the “No Policy” rule is being enforced? These are all questions I wanted to debate, write reports and stories about, and conduct interviews with asylum seekers and immigrants to let them share their stories.
Now, let me tell you my story. My desire and dream to share the impactful and moving stories of refugees and immigrants started at a young age when my mom made me aware of all the different cultures, religions, and people around the world. On weekends my siblings and I would trace the Arabic letters, أهلا بك, “Welcome” onto a sign. We would proudly put our new poster into the car, climb in and drive east to the airport.
We knew the refugee family we were assigned to pick up had arrived when large families toting only a single plastic bag, would come down the escalator. After an initial first sense of awkwardness due to language barriers, we helped retrieve their tattered suitcases; their only belongings. I was always most excited when the families had kids my age, and we would play together, mixing languages and using gestures during the ride to their new apartment. Even at eight, it became one of my favorite things to do, welcoming a family to America. I still hope, to this day, that they got an excellent first impression of American hospitality and kindness from us.
We usually left our new friends sitting on the hard floor of their new house, the baby fast asleep, the men smoking, the women making tea. Once I got older, and the welcome routine became more familiar, I started to feel the same agony my mom always felt. The sadness was indescribable. Pulling away in our car from their stark, bare apartment and coming home to our house secured with security cameras and decorated with Christmas lights filled me with despair. I could feel, even then, how underserving it was for a young family who fled civil war and risked everything for protection to end up with so little. This America that they would now know is not what they were expecting or promised while sitting in limbo in Turkey yet everyone we left had hope partially disguising the fear in their eyes.
When we sold our house in Austin to travel indefinitely, we went to volunteer with refugees in Athens, Greece. In the refugee center in the heart of Athens, I played and taught with kids during the day while their parents saw counselors and took English classes. I would prepare a small lesson in the morning and in the afternoon, we’d plant flowers or make bracelets. The days were long and full of challenges, with all the kids extremely scarred from their past. However, I eventually got used to the chaotic days and fell in love with the kids there.
Our two months in Greece ran out, and we soon started planning our next destination. My mom recommended our move to Colombia, as we were seeking a way to continue our Spanish studies. A couple of months later, I was sitting in a classroom in a local school in Medellín, lost and confused while trying to figure out the language.
In the metropolitan city of Medellín, the 200,000 refugees overcrowded the sidewalks in the steamy heat that hung, trapped by the clouds. They sat all day in one spot, waiting for food to feed their malnourished children. It was there that I became more aware of the refugee crisis-not only in the Middle East but also the rest of the world and, most notably, Venezuela. The refugees we took home from the airport in Texas were usually Syrian and occasionally Afghani. Colombia opened my eyes and gave me a better grasp of the various situations for refugees to have to leave their homelands.
Seven years after my mom first took me to pick up a family from the airport, two years after volunteering at the refugee center in Greece, and one year since seeing the asylum seekers on the street in Colombia, I stood at the UN Headquarters in Geneva. Unlike most eight-year-olds at Disneyland, this is where I dreamed of visiting since I was young and aware of the part the UNHCR plays in advocating refugees’ fundamental rights and debating new ones. The top on my bucket list was Geneva, the cultural and economic hub for enterprises, NGOs, and businesses and, of course, international governmental organizations. It took me traveling to over 70 countries around the world to finally convince my family that Switzerland would be the ideal next country.
The first day in Geneva, after carefully planning my outfit just in case I met a highly regarded United Nations delegate or even a world leader, I glanced up at the 193 sovereign flags. I tried picking out those that were familiar, those of the many countries I had visited, and I tried to make a mental note of all the unfamiliar flags to study-or maybe visit at a future date. The Palais Des Nations was crowded and chaotic with official UN spokespersons and journalists, swerving through the maze of tourists. I watched them pass through the metal detectors, off to begin another day at work, deciding the fate of our world and the decisions they would create for global unity and prosperity.
As excited as I was to be at the United Nations, what I was most anticipating was touring the UNHCR building right across the street. Once inside, my mom and I explained to the tour guide our familiarity in working with refugees in centers and camps. I shared my strong desire to want to have a job in Geneva in this very building or reporting on the law reforms and discussions inside this building or perhaps even working alongside refugees in their host country or refugee camps, assisting with aid. They were surprised at fifteen that I had worked with refugees, but they seemed inspired by this new activist wave that seems apparent in our new generation.
The tour guide showed us videos from the official United Nations page. What I didn’t share is that I had already seen the videos a hundred times on my own; the videos of refugees finally reaching Turkey from Syria, Colombia, from Venezuela. Every single video reminded me of the airport pickups, my three months working in the refugee center in Athens, Greece, and all the Venezuelan refugees I passed coming home from school in Colombia. The storytelling videos showcasing kids reminded me of the stories from Athens like Eva Grace’s stories on an overcrowded lifeboat from The Democratic Republic of Congo and Asal’s long journey running from ISIS in Syria.
I knew that day at the UNHCR, Palais De Nations, and the United Nations that I had two contrasting yet similar dreams. I dream of waking up every day in Sudan, Turkey, or Bangladesh, distributing aid and advocating for refugees in a camp. On the other hand, I aspire to wake up in Switzerland, putting on a suit and a press pass, and having the authority and power to share the stories of refugees young and old fighting for survival, immigration, health, protection, advocacy, global needs, and acceptance. Through exploring my passions at a young age, I’ve created aspirations for the future. How will my story end?