Refugee Voices in America

The world is facing the largest displacement crisis on record. Sixty-five million people have been forced to flee their homes by violence, persecution, and instability. Many countries have given them sanctuary and assistance, so that families have shelter, medical care, and basic services, and children can go back to school and parents can go back to work. But the need remains great. And helping refugees isn’t just up to governments — every American can play a role, too.

At the UN in New York City, President Obama is hosting a Refugee Summit that will bring together world leaders who are stepping up to do more support refugees and help them rebuild their lives. You can watch live here at 3:35pm and learn what you can do to help.

Fleeing from countries around the world, refugees carry with them a common hope for leading a safe life with dignity. Today, in honor of the resilience of refugees and the contributions they bring, we’re sharing the stories of five refugees — including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright — who have resettled here in America.

Madeleine Alright, Former U.S. Secretary of State (Photo by Kelly Jo Smart)

Madeleine Albright
Former U.S. Secretary of State

I was born in Czechoslovakia just two years before Hitler’s troops marched into Prague. My father was a diplomat and a strong supporter of democracy. So my parents and I fled to England, which is where we spent the Second World War. I was eight when the war ended and we returned to Prague, but then the Communists took over and my family was once again forced into exile as refugees, this time in a new and welcoming land — the United States of America.

Becoming a U.S. citizen is the most important thing that ever happened to me, and my family always considered ourselves grateful Americans. My mother used to call me every Fourth of July wanting to know whether her grandchildren were singing patriotic songs. As for my father, he used to cite a contrast.

He said that when we were in Europe during WWII people would say, “We are sorry for your troubles and hope that you have everything you need; by the way, when will you be leaving to go back home?” But in America, people said: “We are sorry for your troubles and hope that you have everything you need; by the way, when will you become a citizen?”

Although it is accurate to describe me as a refugee, I have always tried to make clear that my family was not a hardship case. We did not have to escape through barbed wire. We did not have much money, but we did come on diplomatic passports. So I cannot pretend to know what it is like to endure even a fraction of what the roughly 21 million refugees worldwide are going through today. But I do know what it is like to be uprooted and to be unable to return home. And I cannot imagine what it would have been like to be turned away at the door, or even worse, treated as a potential threat.

President Obama embraces our American values of being an open and welcoming nation, built by immigrants and refugees. He’s living up to what he pledged to do in taking in 85,000 refugees this year, including 10,000 Syrian refugees, and he has pledged to increase these goals for next year to 110,000 refugees overall. And with refugees undergoing the most rigorous screening of any traveler, he’s shown we can welcome refugees while ensuring our own safety. Today, he is hosting a summit at the United Nations in order to get other countries to follow the United States’ example. As we talk to the other nations about how much more they need to do, it’s very important that we set an example, just as President Obama has done.

Asmaa Albukaie (Photo by Kelly Jo Smart)

Asmaa Albukaie

I learned English by hiding in a bathroom, reviewing the vocabulary that I picked up from American movies. In my world, learning English was not something that a woman was supposed to do. But I felt like I had an American woman inside me, fighting to get out. American movies were a driving force. In every film I watched, I saw the themes of freedom and justice surface time and time again. They inspired me to seek an education and continue learning English. I went on to eventually receive my master’s degree.

Shortly after losing my husband, my country broke out in war. As a young single mother, it was clear that for my own safety and the safety of my children, I needed to flee Syria. Flying wasn’t an option. So I began the difficult journey through buses and through boat, I eventually made it to Egypt. But again, as a Syrian single mother, Egypt was no place for me and my children to prosper. I began contemplating our next step. Despite the risk and danger, I was preparing myself for the idea of fleeing by boat to Europe. But all I could think about was the possibility of my children not making it through the journey. But finally, there was hope. I was told that my children and I were going to be resettled in the United States.

In 2014, I arrived in Boise, Idaho. I was the first Syrian refugee to resettle there and was met with warm welcomes all around. I am inspired by the spirit of Americans: working hard and not giving up. That is how I want to live my life and how I want to raise my children.

Emir Hadzic (Photo by Kelly Jo Smart)

Emir Hadzic

When I was 17 years old I came to the United States after fleeing Bosnia. I always assumed that my next step after high school would be going to college. However, when I watched the U.S. deploy to Bosnia, I wanted to join the troops that were working to better the lives of those in my home country. So I joined the Marines and was deployed to the Pacific. During my active duty service, the 9/11 attacks happened. After seeing my native country destroyed by senseless violence, I was shocked to see an attack like this on U.S. soil. I was determined to stay in the Marine Core until Osama Bin Laden was caught and brought to justice.

I wanted to do everything to protect the country that had done so much for me.

I’ve learned that people around the world are willing to work with the U.S. because they see us as champions of freedom, equality, and openness. It’s those ideals that bind us together and draw immigrants and refugees to our shores. Now, as a retired Marine, I am committed to dedicating my life to public service in the U.S. This nation showed me the most generous welcome that one could ever hope to see and I will pay that forward.

Philip Maung (Photo by Kelly Jo Smart)

Philip Maung

In 1989, I arrived in the U.S. with $13 in my pocket. I had left Burma where I was a top student, on track for medical school. When I came to the U.S., I had nothing. But I was determined to make something of myself in my new country. I applied for asylum and got a job working the night shift at a gas station for $3.25 an hour. I worked in the nights so that during the day I could study. Eventually I studied enough to get my real estate license. At the time, in California, I noticed that all around me there seemed to be a new trend in food: sushi. I thought that if I got in at just the right time, I could bring the sushi trend to the East Coast. So I packed my bags and headed to Charlotte, North Carolina.

My business venture proved to be trickier than I expected, I couldn’t find a bank that would give me the time of day, much less a loan for my sushi kiosk. So I started small. In 1998, I maxed out my credit cards, hoping my vision would pay off. Today, my small business has expanded to 40 states and over 900 outlets. My business isn’t structured around the bottom line. Instead, I prioritized my employees, everything from family leave to abolishing a dress code.

I want to make sure that all of my employees have what they need to succeed, because I understand what it’s like to build yourself up from nothing. I understand the American dream.
Biljana Debogovic (Photo by Kelly Jo Smart)

Biljana Debogovic

As Bosnia broke out in conflict, I knew that I needed to leave. I was a widow and needed to prioritize the safety of my children. We went to Croatia and from there went to Los Angeles. Rebuilding our lives was incredibly difficult. My children, especially my son, struggled with learning English. As a single mom, it was difficult to find work while also being able to care for my children as we all endured this transition.

But eventually things fell into place. My son met a great friend, whose mother was a volunteer in the school and helped to teach my son English. Still to this day, 20 years later, they remain best friends. My mother ended up also coming to the U.S. and with her helping with my children, I could look for a job.

Finally, I was offered a temporary job as a receptionist at the very organization that worked to resettle my family. I jumped at the chance to work and to give back to the place that had given me so much.

Those two weeks turned into 20 years: I still work as a part of the International Rescue Committee, helping families in the same situation as I was in, to resettle into their new homes.

Every day I see the opportunities that this country grants and the lives of new Americans that are changed.

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