Why I don’t call myself a refugee anymore
I don’t want to call myself a refugee anymore.
I always say, “Being a refugee is not a choice, but rather a circumstance..” No one wants to become a refugee, and I no longer call myself a refugee.
Once a refugee, I served refugees and worked with refugees. I know how it feels to be called a refugee from the inside out. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, my family left the country because of political conflict. We became refugees in Uganda and lived there for almost 6 years. In that chaotic life journey, I lost my mother in a house fire. My brothers were seriously burned, but luckily they survived.
As a refugee, I was at times hopeless, needy, dependent, and yet a survivor.
Finally, my family got a chance to be resettled in the United States. This is where I have been living for the last seven years.
Being a refugee taught me a lot and made me stronger and helped me to become the person I am today. But I don’t like to be called a “refugee” anymore. I believe that the moment a “refugee” gets a chance to be permanently resettled, they should no longer be called “refugees.” After all, the situation that made that person a refugee in the first place is no longer a lived reality.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defines a refugee as: “Someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.”
Why would they need to be called a “refugee” If they are safe now, not forced to flee, and no more persecution or violence targeting them?
Many resettlement organizations and agencies are maintaining the stereotype that refugees are helpless. Some service providers have not changed their language by appealing to the pity of the term “refugee” to a more empowering word. The name itself shows pity, help, poverty, submission, inferiority, etc. As a result, donors then feel like they should help a poor refugee.
In conflict zones, saying someone is a refugee makes sense, but in a safe and peaceful resettlement country, it does not. I have seen some resettled refugees still label themselves refugees despite being here for many years. They forget that they have passed that stage of being a refugee and can be considered like everyone else. They are not refugees anymore, if they are a permanent resident (green card holder) or a new American citizen.
A new terminology is needed. I don’t call myself a refugee – I prefer to use “former refugee.”
This simple change can make all the difference. It reminds us that we once struggled in that life, but no more. We do not live the life of a “refugee” anymore. It sounds like freedom and a fresh start to me!
When we stop calling a former refugee a “refugee” we contribute to that person’s growth. They get a new sense of belonging, acceptance, inclusion, and consideration. This especially needs to start with former refugees themselves. We need to stop using that label among ourselves. Next, organizations need to stop using the term. Then that awareness can spread to the general public and build confidence within the community.