I Was A Child Refugee, And My Heart Aches For Kids Who Are Following In My Shoes

by Laura Rusu
AleksandarNakic / iStock

I was exhausted as we exited the secured area of Dulles Airport to claim our baggage. It wasn’t that our travels were taxing, but traveling with two young kids makes any parent weary.

My kids were excited to break free and ran off toward a large family waiting near the exit. Just then, the family erupted into cheers as the teenager behind us rushed toward them. There was laughter and kids jumping up and down, a common sight at airports all over.

And then I saw it: THE BAG.

The young man behind us clutched a thin white plastic bag with the letters IOM as he tried to maintain his balance with excited kids and adults of all ages hugging him. IOM stands for the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental organization that helps refugees resettle in their new country. The bag the young man was holding is the one given to refugees to hold their important paperwork, including visas and passports, on their journey to the United States.

I know that bag well because I loved holding it during my trek to the United States 30 years ago today as a refugee. As an excited 12-year-old, I kept begging my mom and dad to let me hold it. They reluctantly acquiesced, but watched me carefully so I wouldn’t lose it. That bag was my treasure. It’s also the same bag my brother was clutching when he arrived at the airport to join us after being separated for two years.

The memories of such a journey don’t ever leave you, even three decades later. As a refugee, I felt his family’s joy. And as a mother today, I also empathized with the tears that quickly followed his mother’s joy. They were tears of happiness, and undoubtedly relief, for being able to hold her son in her arms once again.

I’ve seen many similar bags during my travels with Oxfam, the international nonprofit organization I work for. Over the years, they have always brought a smile to my face as I imagined the nervous excitement of those holding tightly to them — a key to the new life that awaited them in their adopted countries.

But at Dulles that night, I felt mostly sadness. My eyes quickly welled up with tears, as I thought about how my adopted country has begun to close its doors to refugees, making these kinds of reunions less likely in the future.

Refugees are among the world’s most vulnerable people — women, children, that young man — who are simply trying to find a safe place to live after fleeing unfathomable violence and loss. But instead of affirming the values of the United States by granting safety and protection to innocent people in their hour of need, President Trump’s executive order seeks to slam the door shut on refugees. But that’s not the America that welcomed me 30 years ago. That’s not our America.

For decades, the United States has safely welcomed refugees from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. In my case, it was from Communist Romania during the Cold War. These days, many Syrians are seeking refuge after enduring unspeakable violence in their homeland and years of waiting in refugee camps as they undergo the multiple and complex layers of our security screening process. But as soon as they arrive in America, no matter where from, refugees work hard to rebuild their lives here in the United States, integrating deeply into the fabric of our society.

While the administration’s executive order is being battled in the courts, we must continue to make our voices heard. It’s times like these — hard times — when we show who we really are. In times of great need, the America I know would expand its efforts, not curb them; find ways to be more compassionate, not less; live up to its aspirations, not down to its fears. We cannot extinguish the torch of the Statue of Liberty that for decades has welcomed millions desperate to start a new life in the United States.

Although I could venture a guess where the young man was from, I won’t. He’s on his way to becoming just as American as you and I.

Laura Russu

Laura and her mother at Charles de Gaulle Airport waiting for their flight to the United States, on April 22, 1987 — with the bag.