It’s difficult to see a bright side of the global refugee crisis. Children drowning in dangerous sea crossings. Families starving in Africa. Numbers like 22.5 million refugees worldwide and 20 people forcibly displaced every minute, every day overwhelm our senses and dwarf our ability to connect with the people behind them.
We know the stories of some people who came to this country as refugees: Albert Einstein, after Hitler’s expulsion of Germany’s leading scientists; Gloria Estefan, who fled Cuba with her parents following the Cuban Revolution; Luol Deng, an NBA all-star who fled South Sudan as a child. And others: Sergey Brin. Madeleine Albright. Isabel Allende.
History is full of examples of refugees who integrated into our society and left lasting contributions in the realms of science, business, arts, politics and sports.
While resettlement is a precious and often lifesaving opportunity for refugees, the need for resettlement far outstrips available spaces. Worldwide, less than 1 percent of refugees are resettled ever. A refugee’s path to the United States is not easy. Though the U.S. has resettled more than 3 million refugees since 1975 – the most of any nation – the vetting process is incredibly thorough and can take up to 2 years.
While the number of resettled refugees pales in comparison to the global crisis, there are people behind this number too. Refugees like Ekhlas Ahmed. She’s a bright spot.
Ekhlas’s family was forced to flee the Darfur region of Sudan when violent genocide threatened their lives. Just a child, Ekhlas relied on organizations like UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency – for lifesaving essentials including shelter, water, food, safety and protection. As her family moved from Sudan to Egypt, and finally to Maine where they were resettled when Ekhlas was 12 years old, they found the hope and dignity they deserved and an opportunity to rebuild their lives.
Ekhlas Ahmed, a refugee from Sudan, gives instruction in her ELL class. Ekhlas learned how to speak English at Casco Bay ten years ago, now she teaches there. © UNHCR/Heather Perry
Ekhlas didn’t know a word of English when she arrived in the U.S. In part, she learned the language by watching The Ellen Show after school. In her eyes, the show was positive and happy, and she wrote down and memorized the words Ellen said. Ekhlas graduated from high school in 2009, earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern Maine and is now working on a master’s degree. She teaches English at Casco Bay High School, where she is the school’s first alumni staff member. She is also the Maine delegate to the Refugee Congress, an organization that USA for UNHCR supports that is dedicated to giving refugees and asylum seekers a voice in the U.S.
"Refugees are vulnerable people, but due to the generosity of the American people we are able to provide refugees like Ekhlas with help and hope as they flee devastating circumstances and prepare them for independence in a new and permanent home."
USA for UNHCR provides help in the way of lifesaving assistance for those that are forced to flee, hope in the way of job, skills and language training while they are displaced and ultimately a home, be that a safe return to their home country or a new life in the U.S. Our donors invest in critical programs such as cash assistance for urban refugees; education for refugee children and youth; winter survival assistance for refugees in Europe and the Middle East; and much-needed shelter.
We do this to make sure that stories like Ekhlas’s are the rule, not the exception.
As we strive to hold tight to our moral compass in a post-truth world, the fact is that refugees are not just hard working, but very likely to succeed and give back to their communities. Their motivation, spirit and resilience should bring out the bright side in all of us.
By Anne-Marie Grey
Anne-Marie Grey is the Executive Director and CEO of USA for UNHCR, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization headquartered in Washington D.C. dedicated to raising funds and awareness for refugees and the work of UN Refugee Agency and its partners. June 20 is World Refugee Day.