Some Thoughts on World Refugee Day

A young Persian man with longer hair smiles nervously at the camera. He is wearing a blue shirt and a backpack. People behind him on the street are out of focus.

This picture is not the best someone has ever taken of me. I don’t look as put together as I try to. Probably could have used a comb. But this picture is special, as it is the last one taken of me before I left my home country of Iran for the last time.

This is arguably the first picture in which I am a refugee, or at the very least, the first in which I am becoming one.

I was headed to the bus that would take me to Armenia, not knowing where I would go from there, or if I would even make it across the border. An old friend from high school, someone who I hadn’t seen in ages, happened to bump into me. We chatted for a moment. I didn’t tell him what was happening, where I was headed. He mentioned that he’d been taking some photography classes and asked if he could take a picture of me before I went on my way.

Do I look like I’d been up all night? Do I look like I’d just experienced what, to me, felt like the worst betrayal possible? Do I look like I’m scared for my life?

Today, World Refugee Day, gives me a lot of pause. Although most people who know me consider me an asylum-seeker, perhaps because it sounds “cleaner” or more middle-class, I am, to the best of my knowledge and according to the definitions laid out in the 1951 Refugee Convention, a very fortunate refugee: “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Iran took in refugees from Poland after WWII, including a few thousand Jews. Most countries seem to take turns. Iran now produces refugees, such as those of us who left under threat of religious persecution, and asylum-seekers, like those who tried to help women find housing away from their abusive husbands.

Reading the list published by the Guardian of nearly 35,000 refugees who died in the process of seeking safety, seeking asylum, seeking recognition of their humanity, I came across some Persian names. I thank Hashem that mine is not among them, but I am reminded of my responsibility, as someone who has, to this point, been given refuge, to advocate for those who continue to seek.

Most people who leave their homelands for places where they have no real connection are less concerned with taking from native citizens than they are with finally being able to have what is theirs. They would like to enjoy their human dignity. They would like to live their values. These are things that can, in theory, be given to anyone in the United States: religious freedom, fair trials, minority rights. These are American values, which are more precious than rubies, more precious than being able to celebrate my birthday with my mother, more precious than anything in the lives of people who risk it all to have a taste.

What are your values, and how do you support the people who share them?

A link to the Guardian piece.

A piece about the Iranian asylum-seeker in Holland who I alluded to above.

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