Becoming a Refugee

Hassan is an educated man, speaks fluent English, has a university degree and is enthusiastic to do any type of work that he can find. Living in Kenya as a refugee, however, he has been unable to support his family and, given the lack of security in his country, he cannot return home to Sudan. What strikes me about Hassan is not just his incredibly optimistic attitude or the fact that he has managed to survive with five children and his wife. What I felt most in meeting Hassan was how similar we are, despite the obvious age, gender, family and nationality differences.

Often I think we separate ourselves from refugees and look at them as some sort of “other.” They might not speak the same language, they might dress differently, they might be from a country we have never been to and they might have lived a life very different from ours in their home country. All of these factors contribute to an automatic separation. What I think we often forget when we refer to people as refugees is the word before the label. They are people. They are people that in one day can become refugees. In Hassan’s case he is not like most of the refugees that RefugePoint works with. He did not flee Sudan immediately after being attacked. He did not flee Sudan at all. He came to Nairobi as a student with a young family and in an instant “became” a refugee (The UN refers to such cases as “sur place” refugees).

I have studied overseas, I have worked abroad and I am now living over seven thousand miles away from where I grew up. In meeting Hassan I put myself in his position and think how I would feel if next week there were a crisis and all of a sudden it was not safe to return to my country. One of the things that helps me to survive in a new country and environment is the knowledge that I can go home; that I can return to my country and family and traditions and familiar environment when I want. That knowledge has a very powerful psychological effect. For Hassan, he does not have that luxury.

Although Hassan always seems to have a smile on his face, his smile was especially big yesterday. After ten years of being away from Sudan and being in a place where he cannot work or become a citizen and where he is constantly threatened with violence, Hassan, his wife and five young children will be traveling to the United States. They will start over yet again, but this time with the promise of a permanent home. Of all the refugees I have seen depart for the US, he is as prepared as any.

The warm clothes have been bought, the bags have been packed, the shoes have been shined, but most importantly, those qualities of resilience, flexibility and optimism shine through Hassan’s smile that he will take with him to his new home. When asked how he feels on his last day in Africa, he says, “I am so excited words do not even describe. What an amazing opportunity I have that I am so grateful for.”