Looking back on World Refugee Day

On World Refugee Day, at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 37 refugees from around the world raised their right hands, swore a solemn oath, and became American citizens.

Taking part in their naturalization ceremony was one of the most powerful and moving experiences I have had in my time in government. In many ways, it captured the essence of what makes our nation exceptional: welcoming refugees as new citizens in the company of Holocaust survivors in a museum in our nation’s capital dedicated to honoring memory through action.

From sixteen corners of the world, these new citizens are now part of our American story — part of a larger journey first imagined in the precious few words “We the People.” By design, it is a story left unfinished. Day by day, we are meant to continue the work of building a nation that better reflects the values, honors the diversity, and lives up to the aspirations of every single one of its citizens.

The contributions of refugees to the diverse mosaic of our nation are undeniable.

Because without Sergey Brin, there is no Google. Without Albert Einstein, there are no world-changing theories on physics. Without Marc Chagall, our world would have less color. Without Madeleine Albright, our community of democracies might be smaller. In countless communities across America today, refugees are giving back to the country that has given them a new start.

Earlier this year, I met one of these refugee innovators, Yasir Dhanoon. Yasir works at a publishing company in New York while trying to start his own business. Nearly a decade ago, Yasir fled the violence of his native Iraq for the relative safety of Syria. It was not long before Syria’s civil war would force him to flee for his life once again. “I was lucky to have a suitcase when I left,” he told me. In his story, I heard reflections of the courage, determination, and drive that all Americans share — qualities that continually strengthen and renew our nation.

This was powerfully evident when I met with a group of refugee community leaders who have come to Washington through Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services to raise their voices on behalf of their fellow citizens. One of these leaders spoke passionately about the journey he endured as an unaccompanied minor on the roof of a train north from Honduras — and his desire to ensure children do not feel forced to make similar choices today.

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services hosted a workshop for resettled refugees who wish to engage in grassroots advocacy for refugees and migrants.

We discussed how the global refugee crisis challenges us to ensure our security while also living up to our common humanity — to provide the same sanctuary that some of our own parents or grandparents sought in times of trouble and to take a stand against intolerance and hate. As President Obama has made clear, we will continue to uphold our proud legacy as a welcoming nation no matter what.