By Omar Kallon
Growing up as the son of a Sierra Leonean refugee in Egypt during the 1990s wasn’t easy. My father couldn’t return to his homeland because of a brutal civil war, and although my mother was an Egyptian citizen, Egypt’s patrilineal citizenship laws meant my father and my sister and I were never considered Egyptian.
Without legal citizenship, my father was barred from employment, and with our limited funds we had to pay for public schooling that was free for Egyptian citizens. Without legal authorization to work or the means to pursue higher education, I knew my future in Egypt would have been bleak. Leaving everything behind was our only hope of building a life.
In May of 2001, our opportunity came: The International Rescue Committee helped resettle my family to the United States. I was only 12 when we landed in JFK on a sunny day, and my uncle’s friend picked us up in his mini school bus. As we drove across the George Washington Bridge, I looked at the New York City skyline and looked at my new home with awe.
I am forever grateful to the U.S. Refugee Resettlement program and the city of New Brunswick that gave me a second chance. The community we found in New Jersey that welcomed us, and has helped my dreams become a reality. Our apprehensions, fears and doubts quickly turned to resilience, determination, and hope thanks to the opportunities that were available and open to us.
I don’t know where I’d be if my refugee family had never been able to leave Egypt. In the United States, I was given the chance to study and succeed. Almost two decades later, I write as a graduate of Rutgers and Teacher’s College at Columbia University.
Around the world this World Refugee Day, we celebrate the contributions refugees make to our communities. We should also celebrate the inspiring way that Americans are choosing to support families like mine. We did not choose to become refugees, but these Americans have chosen to welcome us, support us and become our friends.
This week more than 14,000 people in the United States are taking the Ration Challenge and eating only refugee rations to build empathy for refugees living in camps and raise money to support refugee families around the world.
Sadly, our government’s policies towards refugees do not now reflect the compassion and generosity that American communities have for refugee families. The refugee resettlement program that saved my life and countless others has been cut by 75% during the last two years. What would have happened to me if my family were being resettled in 2019 rather than 2001?
The glimmering light of hope in the eyes of refugees is getting dimmer, as the U.S., the prime fuel for such light, is abandoning its responsibilities and global leadership. America is better than this.
As a program specialist at Church World Service, I see first-hand the impact funding and resource shortages have on our network of resettlement offices around the country. I experience the painful office closings, heartbreaking stories of families unable to reunite with loved ones, and intense internal discussions on how to continue our services.
This World Refugee Day, as we celebrate refugees in New Brunswick, we must demand that our elected leaders do the same. Congress must rebuild the life-saving resettlement program by returning resettlement numbers to the historic average of 95,000.
Our communities and our nation will thrive when we can restore policies that reflect our values and honor our promises to the thousands of refugee families who are looking for a safe place to call home.
Kallon lives in New Jersey.