First Person

Arriving in America, carrying hopes in a plastic bag

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The author and her mother at Charles DeGaulle Airport waiting for their flight to the United States, on April 22, 1987. With the bag. Photo by Ioan Rusu, the author's father

Thirty years ago today I came to the US as a refugee, and like many before and after me, I was very eager to become part of American society.

As we returned from our spring break recently, my two young kids were excited to break free as we exited the secured area of Dulles Airport to claim our baggage. It was late and I was tired, not because our short journey was arduous, but rather that traveling with two young kids makes any parent weary.

My kids ran toward a large family waiting near the exit at baggage claim just as they erupted into cheers when the teenager exiting behind us rushed toward them. There was the usual laughter and kids jumping in excitement one sees at airports.

The young man behind us clutched a thin white plastic bag with the letters IOM as he tried to maintain his balance with excited kids and adults of all ages hugging him. IOM stands for the International Organization for Migration, an inter-governmental organization that helps refugees resettle in their new country. The bag the young man was holding is the one given to refugees to hold their important paperwork, including visas and passports, on their journey to the United States.

I know that bag well because I held it too 30 years ago today as a refugee. I was 12 years old when I travelled to the United States for the first time with my parents. They were nervous to let me hold such an important bag but reluctantly acquiesced because of my excitement, and watched me carefully so I wouldn’t lose it. That bag was my treasure. It’s also the same bag my brother was clutching when he arrived at the airport to join us after being separated for two years.

Even three decades later, the memories of such a journey don’t leave you. As a refugee, I felt his family’s joy. And as a mother today, I empathized with his mother’s tears of happiness, and undoubtedly relief, for being able to hold her son in her arms once again.

As I have traveled the world for my work with Oxfam, I’ve seen many similar bags over the years, and they have always brought a smile to my face as I imagined the nervous excitement of those holding tightly to them – a key to the new life that awaited them in their adopted countries. But at Dulles that night, I felt mostly sadness. My eyes quickly welled up with tears, as I thought about how my adopted country has begun to close its doors to refugees; making these kinds of reunions less likely in the future.

Refugees are among the world’s most vulnerable people – women, children, that young man – who are simply trying to find a safe place to live after fleeing unfathomable violence and loss. But instead of affirming the values of the United States by granting safety and protection to innocent people in their hour of need, President Trump’s Executive Order seeks to slam the door shut on refugees. But that’s not the America welcomed me 30 years ago. That’s not our America.

From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, the US has safely welcomed refugees for decades. In my case, it was from Communist Romania during the Cold War. These days, many Syrians are seeking refugee after enduring unspeakable violence in their homeland and years of waiting in refugee camps as they undergo the multiple and complex layers of our security screening process. But as soon as they arrive in America, no matter where from, refugees work hard to rebuild their lives here in the US, integrating deeply into the fabric of our society.

While the Administration’s Executive Order is being battled in the courts, we must continue to make our voices heard.  It’s times like these – hard times – when we show who we really are. In times of great need, the America I know would expand its efforts, not curb them; find ways to be more compassionate, not less; live up to its aspirations, not down to its fears. We cannot extinguish torch of the Statue of Liberty that for decades have welcomed millions in desperate to start a new life in the United States.

I could certainly guess where the young man was from, but I won’t. He is, after all, going to become just as American as you and I. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+