Thank you. It is a singular honor for us at the Department of State to host this naturalization ceremony for the 19 courageous individuals from across the globe joining us today. Each of you has a unique life story and each of you has traveled a long road, literally and figuratively, to get here, but your journey captures the essence of the American experience.
I’m also pleased to welcome so many friends from the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the White House, and the United Nations, including Under Secretary Otero, Assistant Secretary Richard, Deputy Secretary Lute, Director Mayorkas, Deputy National Security Advisor McDonough, and UNHCR Goodwill Envoy Khaled Hosseini. We are all honored to share this day and this country and its promise with those who will soon become the newest Americans.
I truly can’t think of a better way to commemorate World Refugee Day. In addition to welcoming our newest citizens, today we are calling attention to the plight of over 15 million refugees around the world, uprooted from their homes, searching for a way to renew their lives. Their cause is not at its core political or diplomatic. It is human. And it is championed by generous and compassionate citizens and governments around the world. Today, we celebrate their efforts and redouble our own.
Although this is World Refugee Day, it means something special to the American people. Centuries before the world defined what it means to be a refugee, America was already a refuge. We welcomed to our shores men, women, and children fleeing hunger, poverty, persecution, and desperation, from the Irish potato famine and Russian pogroms of the 19th century to conflict and instability in East Africa today. Our culture and our character are defined by their contributions, by the Americans they became. It is how we became who we are.
That presents a point of pride, but also a moral challenge. And so we work with international partners to coordinate and strengthen relief response, and we advocate on behalf of displaced peoples to ensure that those who have lost their homes can retain their well-being and their dignity. We also supplement diplomacy with financial assistance as the world’s largest single donor to refugee relief efforts. We provided UNHCR with over $690 million in funding last year, part of a larger assistance package aimed at helping refugees and conflict victims that totaled more than $1.8 billion in 2011.
Many of the people we assist all over the world are able to return to their homes, but some resettle in other countries. You joined the ranks of the many millions of other refugees who have resettled in the United States over the past century alone. And you are now following in the footsteps of great Americans, like Albert Einstein, Madeleine Albright, and Henry Kissinger, who came here as refugees and made our country stronger by joining our nation as citizens.
None of you were born American; you chose this after being forced on the difficult path of exile and after enduring many sacrifices and hardships to get to this day. Though each of your experiences is unique, you share your motivations for becoming American with millions of immigrants over the centuries: you are here because of the promise of fundamental freedoms and opportunity – or, as one of you eloquently told us, “a new beginning, a new life, and a new hope.”
Finally, we also pay tribute to two of our distinguished guests here today who began new lives as Americans, and went on to touch the lives of millions of people around the world.
My friend and colleague Maria Otero left her home in Bolivia and immigrated to this country when she was just twelve years old. Her first job in the United States was at a supermarket here in Washington. She went on to become a leader in microfinance and women’s empowerment programs worldwide. And we are all deeply fortunate that she then joined us here at the State Department, where, as Under Secretary, she now champions the universal human rights of people all over the world, including refugees.
A refugee himself, Khaled Hosseini turned his childhood experiences, from Afghanistan to California, into The Kite Runner, a book that brought home the refugee experience and life in Afghanistan to many millions of readers and moviegoers. It’s a story that spans different worlds and captures the inevitable struggle to move forward with life in a new country while maintaining roots in an old one. In it, he describes the process of bringing a boy from Afghanistan to America as “lifting him from the certainty of turmoil and dropping him in a turmoil of uncertainty.”
No doubt that’s a description that applies to many of you here today. America is not easy, and there are no guarantees of success here. But you have support, from our government, from diaspora communities, and from each other. You have a chance to make whatever life you choose here. And, just like so many who have come before you, I have every confidence you will seize that opportunity and do remarkable things for yourselves, for your families, and for your new country. We are proud to call you fellow Americans. Congratulations, and I wish you every good fortune in the years ahead.