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01 July 2019
World Refugee Day Panel Discussion
World Refugee Day Panel Discussion

By Jordan Walker, Member, UNA-NCA Sustainable Development Committee

“The world does not support humanity on the basis of humanity alone.”

On June 20th, 2019, the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area facilitated a panel discussion in honor of World Refugee Day, and to galvanize support for refugee relief efforts around the world. Panelists Dr. Sami Baloch Badini, a political asylee from Balochistan, and Egette Indelele, a refugee from Tanzania, spoke about their stories traveling to the United States, and the incredible adversity they faced both before and after their arrival.

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Mary Kate Vanecko, the Development Coordinator for Nothing but Nets, a malaria elimination campaign of the United Nations Foundation, facilitated the discussion. Her questions centered around themes of identity, acceptance, the concept of home, and what challenges refugees and asylum seekers face when defining all three in their own lives.

The first panelist, Egette Indelele, is a first generation and rising junior at George Mason University. Indelele was born and raised in a refugee camp in Tanzania and came to the United States in 2006. Her parents survived the Rwandan genocide, and her mother worked for the UN, helping other refugees to get into the same camp that they were able to get into. “There were people I knew who were dying in the refugee camp from malaria and starvation,” she recalled. Indelele is the President of George Mason UNICEF, and it is her life goal to help other refugees who are in similar situations as she was. She wants to go to Burundi one day to set up a homeless shelter for children.

The second panelist, Dr. Sami Baloch, is a psychiatrist and political and human rights activist from Balochistan, a country surrounded on all sides by Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and the Arabian sea. Balochistan is the largest provincial state of Pakistan and provides Pakistan with most of its natural gas, coal, and minerals. For decades there have been several growing separatist movements and insurgencies advocating for Balochistan’s independence as a sovereign nation. Doctor Badimi fled Pakistan in 2011 to Saudi Arabia, and from there struggled to obtain a U.S. visa as a political asylee. While in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, he worked as a psychiatrist treating torture survivors, Afghan refugees, and victims of war. He finally arrived in the U.S. in 2015.  Dr. Badini was tortured by the Pakistan soldiers for his work as a political activist, and his life has been threatened numerous times. His goal was to come to America and talk about oppressed people and nations.

“Any person who seeks refuge, that is their last option.” Dr. Badini noted that it is almost impossible for most Balochistans to leave Pakistan, and that it was extremely difficult for him to leave, even as a doctor. As an asylee, Dr. Badini had to wait for his claim to refugee status to be approved by the United States government before he could enter, or have access to benefits, jobs, and housing.

Vanecko first asked both panelists to explain the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker.

Dr. Badini defined a refugee as someone who seeks refuge while still overseas, but does not become a refugee until permission to enter the country is granted. He defined an asylum seeker as “people like me who do not trust the government (of the place they wish to leave), and cannot seek refuge unless you physically escape and then apply for asylum in the destination country.” In other words, an asylum-seeker is someone who says he or she is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated. Dr. Badini expressed his own concern with the immigration policies in the United States, where it is blatantly and increasingly difficult to enter as an asylum seeker or refugee, and the backlog of asylum seekers is increasing by hundreds of thousands every year.

“Asylum seekers (in the United States) used to have to wait three weeks while being prohibited from getting a job or seeking health benefits. Now, it takes three years to get an asylum interview in the United states. You are essentially homeless for the duration of that time.”

Along the same lines, Vanecko asked the panelists what they believe people are not talking about enough in light of the global refugee crisis.

“Pakistan is still violating human rights in that part of the world,” Dr. Badini stated.

Dr. Badini expressed that it is essential to recognize that refugees have completely different understandings of basic human rights.  For many refugees, “It is a luxury to feel safe,” he noted.

Dr. Badini spoke about the severe human rights abuses that the Government of Pakistan has committed against Balochistan political activists, including thousands of people who have been killed and/or tortured for speaking out against the government. However, there is very little advocacy for the people of Balochistan, or international attention directed at the human rights violations that are happening there.

“The world does not support humanity on the basis of humanity alone,” Dr. Badini explained. Unfortunately, the blatant human rights abuses committed by a government against its people is not always enough to provoke action from other powerful and resourceful countries.

Dr. Badini expressed his frustration with the United States’ interference in Pakistan, including selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, and introducing torture techniques to Pakistan soldiers who have adopted the same techniques with no constraint or global accountability.

Doctor Badini also spoke about the culture shock he faced when he was first adjusting to life in the United States, in 2015. Aside from learning English on his own, he jokingly recalled how it was difficult for him to adjust to social cues, like learning to make eye contact with everyone, which is not always appropriate in Balochistan. “Nobody wants to start from scratch,” he noted, “people just want to be accepted as they are.”

Vanecko asked both panelists to elaborate on their concept of ‘Home’, and how that idea has changed for them.

Indelele spoke first. “Home is where I feel accepted, not where I was born.” Indelele explained that she, too, did not know any English moving to the U.S., which was a challenge adjusting to life there. Indelele’s concept of Home is more of a feeling than a physical place. “For me, Church and family support was my home.” Indelele remembers being a little girl in the refugee camp, cooking with her grandma and selling shoes that she found with her grandpa. “It felt like home at that time, because I didn’t know better. If I didn’t help, I felt like we didn’t eat.”

For Dr. Badini, he has not really felt at home since he moved to the U.S. “It is a good house, but not a home.” He explained that it takes a long time to rebuild the trust and relationships that make a house a home. Dr. Badini was arrested at his home in Balochistan. He expressed the importance of peace as an ingredient to a true home. “We have to keep the house conflict free to make it a home for every individual,” he indicated.

Vanecko used both Panelists’ answers to shift to her next question, which was how can other people build trust with refugees from a low level, civilian point of view, when there is an overall distrust of the institutions and policies that exist beyond our reach?

Indelele said that the most important step anyone can take is to build awareness, ask questions and to get to know refugees.  She also mentioned that building trust goes hand in hand with feeling safe. In order to feel safe, humans need jobs, education, resources, and most importantly, a mentor.

“Humans want to trust. We have been trained not to,” Dr. Badini said, perhaps drawing from his professional background. He reflected on his own distrust of American cops, or men in uniform in general because of the trauma he endured on the border between Balochistan and Pakistan. It was hard for him to even trust the UN uniforms in refugee camps. “Trust takes a long time, and developing trust economically and holistically is difficult.”

When Vanecko asked both refugees how people can better educate themselves on refugee issues, Indelele said that she notices a lot of complacency in the U.S. “The problem with Americans is they are genuine in their feelings of compassion toward refugees, but they go on with their lives and think, someone else is doing it, someone else is stepping up.” The simplest way to get others involved, she said, is to communicate using the platforms that are available to us. For example, UNHCR’s #StepWithRefugees challenge has picked up thousands of followers on Twitter, and challenges people to take 2,000 steps to recognize refugees who move 1 billion miles every year just to find safety.

Dr. Badini faced the audience and said, “find a refugee and know them.” He emphasized the importance of identity, and taking the time to understand who other people are and where they come from. “The basic fight of life is developing and making known our identity.” He listed what he believes are essential components to an individual’s identity: language, a national identity, culture, and manners. These are components that many people share when they grow up in the same neighborhood, state, or nation. Yet, each of these shared components contribute significantly to an individual’s personality and sense of belonging.

Vanecko ended the panel discussion by asking both Dr. Badini and Indelele to tell the audience what drives them to get out of bed every morning.

Family is what drives Indelele. As a first generation and the oldest sibling in her family, Indelele refuses to let her siblings sleep in later than her (even if they are not physically there with her), to set an example for them. “If I stay in bed, what will my siblings think?” she said, grinning.

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Dr. Badini also spoke about family. “My father used to tell me there are three kinds of people: people that take others’ rights, people that take their own rights, and people that do not fight for their own rights.” Dr. Badini said that a good person fights for their own rights, and that is the person that motivates him to get out of bed and be every day.

This year’s theme for World Refugee Day is solidarity. Every twenty minutes someone leaves their entire life behind to escape war, persecution or terror. Like Dr. Badini said, when someone seeks refuge in a foreign country, it is truly their last option. Whether an individual is labeled as a refugee, asylum seeker, stateless person, internally displaced person, or returnee, they have given up or been stripped of a piece of their identity in order to feel safe. It is the community-lead effort in providing support, compassion, and unity that has the power to make a house feel like a home.

For more information on the Balochistan refugee crisis, see here: https://unpo.org/article/18643