Honoring refugees' courage and tenacity

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Caleb Gates, guest columnist

For the vast majority of Americans, the homeland of their ancestors was outside the United States. For some Americans this was centuries ago. Other Americans were born in another country, came to the United States, and now call this country home.

Some of these Americans fled their country due to war, unrest, or persecution. These individuals are refugees.

Refugees are people just like us who have been thrust into unfortunate and often deadly circumstances by outside forces. Refugees desire to live in peace. They want a better life for themselves and for their children. They want the freedom to pursue an education, to work, to practice their religion, to be happy.

Today is World Refugee Day. Today we celebrate the courage and tenacity of refugees who were forced from their homes, who saw their loved ones killed in front of their eyes, who fled their country, and who may never be able to return.

I know refugees who were separated from a parent, a sibling, a child. I have heard the stories of refugees whose parents were killed when they were infants. Other refugees were beaten or raped. Some refugees lost their entire family and only learned years later that some of them survived. Others until today wonder, “Is my sister still alive? Did my child somehow escape the raid of our village? Was my uncle killed by a militia?” Others may battle PTSD and survivor’s guilt. “Why was I the only one in my family to survive?”

Many refugees languished for years in refugee camps, rejected by their own country, waiting for another country to offer them refuge. Over 60 million people worldwide have been displaced by war, genocide, religious persecution and ethnic tension. Every year the United States accepts over 70,000 refugees. 70,000 is a drop in the ocean of humanity displaced by the horrors of war, of persecution, of unrest.

From the Pilgrims seeking religious freedom, to the Irish battling starvation, to Rwandans and Congolese fleeing genocide, to Syrians escaping a hell on earth, the United Sates was and is a country of refugees and immigrants. A plaque inside the Statue of Liberty declares to the world, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.”

We honor the courage and tenacity of these refugees by welcoming them to this country. We honor refugees by resisting and denouncing the siren calls of xenophobia and discrimination. We honor their courage by helping them begin a new life in this country. We honor their tenacity by learning their stories.

In honor of World Refugee Day, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque and Catherine McAuley Center will host a World Refugee Day awareness event from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. today at the Cedar Rapids Public Library, 450 5th Ave, SE. The public is invited to stop by and learn about the refugee experience, how local organizations are making an impact to support refugees resettling in our community, and opportunities for individuals and families to get involved.

Catholic Charities has a long history in refugee resettlement, having provided reception and placement services for nearly 70 years, responding to needs resulting from World War II. Current resettlements facilitated by Catholic Charities are taking place in Cedar Rapids, Postville, and Waterloo. In the past year, Catholic Charities has resettled refugees from Bhutan, Burma (Myanmar), the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan.

• Caleb Gates is a Refugee Resettlement Case Manager for Catholic Charities based out of Cedar Rapids. Comments: c.gates@dbqarch.org

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