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What it takes to flee

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The author fled Romania with her parents in 1985. Here she is pictured (right) at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris on her way to the US. The author fled Romania with her parents in 1985. Here she is pictured (right) at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris on her way to the US.

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An Oxfam staffer shares her family’s escape from persecution.

Laura Rusu is the Policy & Campaigns Media Manager at Oxfam America.

My mother has always been pretty crafty. In Communist Romania in the 1980s, you couldn’t walk into a store and buy a toiletries kit to take with you on summer vacation. Such things were simply not available. So leading up to what I thought was an exciting “summer vacation” to Western Europe, my mom used her crafty skills to make a couple kits for us, all of the same burgundy color with a bigger than average zipper. They were great to store our shampoo, soap, and all the travel necessities. As I later found out, they also concealed my parents’ diplomas and my birth certificate, which my mother had carefully sewn into them so as not to alert the Romanian authorities of our plans to flee.

Reading the recent media coverage of the thousands of unaccompanied children crossing the US border, some with the addresses of their relatives in the US sewn into their clothing, reminded me of what my mom had done for us. It also brought back the fear that I felt back then crossing borders – the fear that still takes over me when I present my now American passport to the authorities, even after years of traveling around the world for Oxfam. One such border guard not too long ago informed me, “You are only American on paper.” I was simultaneously disgusted with his attitude and grateful that the “paper status” that America had granted us was more powerful than his hate.

Our exciting “vacation” to Western Europe turned out to be a way to escape persecution and an opportunity to seek political asylum. As a 10-year-old, it wasn’t easy to leave friends and family behind, and go from country to country, until finally arriving at the haven that is the United States.  It wasn’t an easy trip. Perhaps that’s why I cannot read or watch the coverage of the present crisis without shedding tears.

In my case, my parents were by my side to comfort and reassure me as we were making our tough journey, but my brother wasn’t.  The Romanian authorities at the time would not let an entire family leave the country, so he had to stay behind with our grandparents. I remember the nights that I cried and cried because I missed him so much. Thankfully we were lucky enough to be reunited in the US two years later.

Thinking about these kids from Central America, making such a journey on their own, having to explain themselves to strangers speaking a different language, breaks my heart.  Now, as a mother myself, I simply cannot imagine being in a situation so desperate that compels a parent to send a child on a perilous trek to a different country, all alone, with only the hope of a better chance to live.

But having heard stories from my Oxfam colleagues working in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador who have witnessed not only the negative impacts of extreme poverty, but also the horrifying impacts of the violence perpetrated by armed groups, gangs, traffickers, and some government officials in these countries, I can begin to understand why some of these parents are making that heart-wrenching choice.

It is estimated that there are more civilians killed in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador every year than in many of the world’s wars today. Young people are especially vulnerable, as they are routinely abducted, face human trafficking and sexual violence, or are coerced into carrying out surveillance or informing for armed groups. Recent reports show that 95 percent of homicides in these countries have gone unpunished. It’s no wonder that the World Health Organization calls the situation “an epidemic of violence”.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, nearly 60 percent of the unaccompanied children who have recently crossed the US southern border were forcibly displaced due to insecurity. I feel for any child for whom a treacherous international journey is preferable to life at home, even though some of them will not be entitled to legally remain in the US.  But the bottom line is that many of these children may have a legal claim to stay here. If the government expedites the deportation process and does away with proper vetting procedures, many children legally entitled to stay could be sent right back into harm’s way.

We can’t just send them back home until we fully understand why they left in the first place. Shouldn’t they have the opportunity to explain?

I, along with countless others over this nation’s history from all corners of this planet, was given that opportunity. Why can’t it be afforded to these children?

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