First Person

To be a refugee is to make impossible choices

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Refugees cross Macedonia’s border with Serbia in cold and rainy February weather. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

High-risk decisions flow from lack of options for vulnerable people

Elizabeth Olson is a student at Northeastern University; she is currently serving as the community engagement intern at Oxfam’s headquarters in Boston.

When was the last time you had to make an impossible choice?

For refugees, the concept is all too familiar. A refugee is “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.” In late May, Oxfam America hosted The Refugee Road, an interactive event in which participants walked a mile in the theoretical shoes of Syrian refugees. It was an opportunity for people to engage with the powerful themes of choice, loss, and uncertainty in the wake of the crisis in Syria.

Each participant of the Refugee Road event got a card with an identity they assumed for the evening.

Each participant received a character card with an identity they assumed for the evening. I was tasked with writing these profiles. This involved researching Syrian refugees and their stories, as well as refugees from other crises. I examined hundreds of photos and read gut-wrenching testimonies of their journeys. I watched TED talks given by people who’ve been lucky enough to escape but had to leave their families behind. One story in particular that continues to haunt me is that of Ahmad Mohmammad and his family. He, his wife and five daughters fled their home in Homs, Syria in 2013 after his 9-year-old daughter was shot in the head. She is miraculously still alive, but bits of shrapnel remain lodged in her scalp. At the time this story was recorded, his family was living in a cramped apartment in Zarka, Jordan and was considering making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. Ahmad himself has been shot at three separate times and has witnessed the murders of many others. He states, “I’m willing to take the risk and face the danger of traveling to Europe if it will help my children have a better life.”

Risking it all

Many of the refugees whose stories I observed said something similar – that they were willing to take the risk, that they felt they had no choice. I recall the account of one woman, Doaa, whose story is told in a TEDx talk by Melissa Fleming, head of communications for the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees. Doaa and her boyfriend wanted desperately to flee their miserable existence as Syrian refugees living in Egypt. Doaa couldn’t simply go back to Syria – her father’s business had been decimated in an explosion and her family had nothing left – but she couldn’t continue living in Egypt, not after barely escaping a kidnapping by men on motorcycles. She knew of a friend that had survived the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean and on to northern Europe, so she and her boyfriend decided to risk giving their entire life savings to human traffickers who offered to take them. Ultimately, Doaa and a handful of others made it across the Mediterranean, but the other 500 passengers (including her boyfriend) perished when the boat sank after being attacked by pirates.

Had she been aware of her fate on that boat, Doaa wouldn’t have chosen to take it. But she had to make an impossible choice: remain in Egypt and fear for her life every day, or risk it all in pursuit of a stable living situation in northern Europe. Either of those choices could have led to an unspeakable fate.

As Americans, we are taught from a young age that if you choose to work hard, you’ll live a stable, successful life. Status quo dictates that those who have achieved great success have done so because they made good choices, while those who are suffering are presumed to have done something wrong to deserve it. After reading the stories these refugees told, it became very clear to me that the status quo is not only wrong, but also acts as a barrier to our acceptance and understanding of these innocent people.  Refugees are people who seek asylum from something that has driven them out of their country. They are not leaving by choice. They are simply people who drew the wrong lottery ticket in the proverbial game of life. It’s easy to distance yourself from a refugee if you haven’t lived through a bloody civil war, but the reality is that there’s no guarantee you’ll never be a refugee yourself. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+