Thank you for that kind introduction and for inviting me to speak to you today. It is so good to be back home, here in Jacksonville. As we gather here today to celebrate World Refugee Day, it should bring joy to all of us to welcome these new citizens at today’s Naturalization Ceremony, who, from this day forward, can call the United States of America and Jacksonville, Florida their home too.
We know that refugees – almost by definition – have an extraordinary drive for life. They have survived unspeakable hardships in their quests for safety from violence and persecution. And when they are given the chance to restart their lives in their newly adopted countries, they are determined to become productive members of society.
I have witnessed this determination first hand, both personally and professionally. My wife, Dr. Leelie Selassie, and her family came to the United States as refugees from Ethiopia in 1978, fleeing the violence and repression of the communist Derg regime that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie. They arrived in Rochester, New York with nothing but the clothes on their back and their life’s possessions packed in two suitcases. But, as a family, they were determined to make it. Her parents worked hard, her father as a civil engineer with the Chicago Transportation Authority, and her mother as a homemaker keeping the family together. Leelie and her brother Bereket studied hard, earning scholarships to the University of Illinois. Bereket later earned both his law degree and his MBA from Harvard University and now works in real estate development in Washington, DC. My wife Leelie earned a scholarship to the Medical University of South Carolina is now a critical care physician working in the intensive care unit of a Washington-area hospital, daily saving the lives of critically ill patients. Indeed, it is because of her medical duties that she is unable to join us today, but she asked that I extend her best wishes to everyone here.
In addition to my personal experience with refugees in my family, I have also met refugees living in temporary camps all over Africa, and had the honor of hearing about their hardships as well as their hopes for the future. As mentioned, I am now working in the Bureau of African Affairs, but before this, I worked in the part of the State Department that oversees refugee affairs. Many of you are probably following the crisis in the Horn of Africa where drought is currently affecting 13 million people. In July 2011, I visited the Dolo Ado refugee camps in Ethiopia and witnessed first-hand extensive malnutrition. I saw women who had walked for two to four weeks without food or water, with half-a-dozen children in tow, to reach refuge in Ethiopia and Kenya. Many had to decide which of their children they would leave behind to die because they could not bring all of them on the long journey. In the Dadaab refugee camp in Eastern Kenya, I saw a 7-year-old girl lying in a wheelbarrow. I learned that she had been stricken with polio two years earlier, and her mother had carried her on her back for two weeks from Somalia to reach safety in Kenya. She received the luxury of the wheelbarrow only when they reached the refugee camp.
As we wandered through the refugee camp in Dolo Ado, talking with people who had been there for several days or who had just crossed the border, we heard versions of the same story over and over again. One man I met had come all the way from Mogadishu, traveling for nine days with his wife and six children with very little to eat along the way.
I have seen similar hardships in Central Africa as well. In 2011, I traveled to eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Since 1997, the eastern DRC has seen armed conflict among numerous armed groups. During my trip, I visited the remote village of Kitchanga where there was a central well in the village for women to collect drinking water. I asked them if they felt safe. They laughed at me.
They recounted the rapes they had suffered when collecting firewood in the countryside. Many of the women had been raped a half-dozen times or more. Before visiting Kitchanga, I had read that there are estimates of 2 million deaths in the DRC between 1998 and 2003. More than 400,000 Congolese refugees are now spread across nine countries. These women I met in Kitchanga were some of the faces behind these terrible numbers. I would guess that most of you in this room who were refugees have heartbreaking stories too.
At various times in our lives, all of us need help from one another. Yet, because of the horrific circumstances in which they find themselves, refugees need more help than most. How we respond to our sisters and brothers in need reveals our deepest values as individuals, community members, and as a nation.
As the English poet, John Dunn, wrote in 1624,
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.”
In this poem, Dunn reflects that “Each man’s death diminishes me”. These thoughts remind us all that generosity of spirit is not uniquely an American trait, nor a trait unique to modern times. The concepts of charity, generosity, and compassion have deep religious roots and are natural human instincts that can be traced back thousands of years. These basic tenants are found in the Jewish concept of zedakah, or “charity”, in the “Ten Perfections” of Buddhism, in the notion of “dana,” or philanthropy in Hinduism, the core concept of Christianity’s “love thy neighbour” and the Islamist obligation of “zekat” in the Holy Koran.
These common human values – that every individual life has worth – have led the U.S. to respond generously to people fleeing violence in Africa and around the world. We have a “humanitarian imperative” to act – and we have.
So what are we as a nation doing to confront such horrific situations? To start, the U.S. is one of the largest donors of humanitarian assistance to Africa, with the U.S. State Department providing over $500 million in 2011. Certainly, the United States cannot meet all of the world’s humanitarian needs on our own, yet we play a leading role.
In the setting of this lovely library in downtown Jacksonville, it may be easy to lose sight of the heartbreak that is too often part of the refugee story. Conflicts such as those in Somalia and the DRC affect innocent people who are caught in the violence. Many of these conflict victims who become refugees have been resettled to third countries like the United States, and to communities like Jacksonville.
In fact, the United States resettles the largest number of refugees of any country in the world – more than all other countries combined. This year, the U.S. will welcome some 55,000 refugees from more than 60 countries. Since 1975, the U.S. has welcomed more than 3 million people – as part of our long-standing commitment to protecting the most vulnerable.
Throughout the world, the U.S. has been a leader in refugee resettlement, and in no place more so than the African continent. In 2011, we admitted 7,685 African refugees through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, and we will be increasing this number in the future. Currently, our largest refugee groups from Africa include Somalis, Eritreans, Ethiopians, and Congolese. Looking to the future, we know that there will be an increasing number of Congolese resettled from the Great Lakes region of Africa, Somalis from Eastern Africa, and Eritreans from Eastern Sudan.
Did you know that of the 2,300 refugees who have settled in Florida in the past decade, many have come from African countries such as Liberia, Sudan, and Somalia? And another first for Jacksonville – it was the first home in the United States for Cuban, Burmese, Iraqi, and Bosnian refugees. Yes, Jacksonville has a history of welcoming our nation’s newest citizens, a tradition that we are continuing in this room today.
The overarching U.S. Government’s humanitarian policy stems from our values and national interests. And the men and women before us today – ready to begin their new lives as U.S. citizens – are testimony to the strength and endurance of the individual.
As I conclude my remarks, I know that we have two important reasons for being here today. We are honoring International World Refugee Day – the global event that recognizes the bravery and resilience of refugees. With this tribute, the international community acknowledges the courage and determination of refugees worldwide, who face personal trials and danger in order to find stability for themselves and their families.
And before us, we are here to welcome these men and women as new citizens. Although, your refugee experience has disrupted all that is near and dear to your heart, we hope that you will find the United States a good place to build your new home. No society is perfect, and certainly the United States can be frustrating and, at times, confusing to navigate. Beyond the setbacks though, we sincerely hope that you will also find a new world of choices on ways to pursue your dreams. Choices for your wife or husband. Choices for your children – all possible to imagine in the cherished experience of peace and freedom.
World Refugee Day is a time to reflect upon our common humanity. To the service providers – like those here today – who dedicate time to help others in need, we thank you. And to those who were caught in the violence of social strife, we pay our respects to your ability to rise up, reinvent yourself, and embrace life once again. Please be assured that on behalf of the U.S. Government, we sincerely welcome you to the United States. Our nation is stronger and better and because of you and other newcomers like you. So, in addition to saying “welcome,” let me also say “thank you” for becoming part of this great country, which is now your country, too.