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The label “refugee” is not the one you choose

young woman in front of red brick wall

Bearing the label refugee is strange because it is not one you choose or are born with.

The label refugee is one given to you as a result of circumstances caused by others.

Labels can be life-changing. I didn’t experience the negative effects of a label until war broke out in my country. When I was a child in Bosnia, our lives completely changed when a genocidal war forced us to flee. We left everything we knew behind and became refugees. Suddenly, we were defined by a single word. We moved to Serbia where we lived for two years and waited for my father to escape and join my brother and me. My classmate’s parents would hear I was a refugee and would tear up, sigh, and buy me chocolate bars.

It felt deeply strange to elicit pity through a label I did not choose.

Eventually, we resettled in a small town in California where my classmates were often confused by me, a few of them understood what refugee meant. The war my family lived through was seldom covered by the media so I had to explain the circumstances I came from many times. We were children so I didn’t think my experience inspired much feeling but years later, friends would tell me that it made them grateful for their families and safe homes.

It felt bittersweet to inspire gratitude through the label refugee as it is one I did not choose.

Although we were far from friends and family who had also escaped the war, we would talk on the phone and catch up, when we could afford it. We were strewn around the world and everyone was struggling to make ends meet and adjust to their new circumstances. Reflecting on these stories now, I realize that the people I have admired the most in my life world bore the label refugee.

My aunt who traveled three hours daily by bus to a minimum wage job to support six kids. Only two of which were hers. My father who, despite his college education, did manual labor all day, went to ESL classes six days a week and raised two kids alone. Those who showed that fear and pain and loss can bring out the best in people in their darkest hours. That it is OK to feel hopeless and weak at times and hopeful and strong at others. Refugees who proved that profound resilience can be shown by people who have truly lost everything.

The label refugee is not the one you choose but the one you are given by others through circumstances.

The world is experiencing an unprecedented crisis, where more people than ever are forced to bear the label “refugee”. Bearing the name is strange because it is not one you choose or are born with. It is one given to you as a result of circumstances caused by others, those you are far removed from. The label can be deeply depersonalizing. It can ugly and hurtful when spoken by those who are ignorant or simply don’t understand. And it can be very scary in a political climate that subtly implies that you are not worthy of help. A climate where you are sometimes labeled “dangerous,” again marked by a word that is caused by the actions of others.

The label can be powerful if we choose to wear it proudly.

Refugees are not responsible to educate but we have the power to do so. We can use our labels and share our experience and those of others like us, who have made immeasurable contributions to the United States. Our presence has provided economic energy, innovation, cultural diversity, and is a huge part of this country’s historical identity. Refugees will continue to make a positive impact on the country. A part of the label refugee is a fierce tenacity and a persistent desire to give back to our adopted countries.

I am proud to bear the title refugee because it will always be a part of who I am and has shaped my life in many ways. I bear great pride for what my family went through. We built a brand-new life out of four suitcases filled with clothes and photos. We preserved under terrible circumstances and it has taught me deep, persistent gratitude for the life I live now and all that I have. I didn’t choose this label, but I hold it proudly without letting it define me.

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