Why I don’t call myself a “refugee” anymore
America has been known for its generosity in welcoming refugees and immigrants from all over the world. Since 1948, the U.S. has opened its doors to European refugees, followed by those fleeing communist regimes largely from Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, Korea and China and in the 1960s with Cuban refugees fleeing Fidel Castro. During Vietnam in 1975, USA resettled hundreds of thousands of Indo-Chinese refugees to America. This is only to name a few, there are so many more groups who now call the U.S. home.
There are more refugees in our world than in any other time since World War II. With conflicts in the Middle East largely contributing to the spike in numbers (Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, etc.) This is insane!
Every year, the annual number of refugees the U.S. will receive is established by the President. Obama was very generous, increasing the number to its highest at that time – 120,000 per year. Now, the Trump Administration has reduced that number to 50,000 and even targeting restrictions (Travel Ban) on Muslim groups: Syria, Sudan, Libya, Iran, Yemen and Somalia.
Once a refugee actually arrives to the U.S. are they still a refugee? The label seems to stick no matter what. I’ve always pondered this question. After someone became a refugee and had to flee their home country, they live as a “refugee” in a second country of refuge, then a very small percentage of the worldwide population actually get to go to a third country like U.S., Canada, or Australia (less than 1% actually). Once they get to a third country, why do we still call them a refugee? Haven’t they stopped running from conflict and found safety?!
I know people who came to the USA as refugees over 10-15 years ago but are still being called refugees. I don’t get it. They have a USA passport, USA identification cards, go to the same school as everyone, have a job like everyone else, and can express all the same rights as other American citizens. Yet they are still called or call themselves refugees. Why?
Many of those so called “refugees” do not like to be called that name because of it is diminishing, devaluing, and carries with it all kinds of negative connotations: from war-torn country, trauma, survivor of torture, low-income, on welfare, can’t speak English, undeveloped, uneducated, the list goes on. As a person who has experienced this before, I hate it as well.
It also is more common for African and Middle Eastern former refugee to be continually called “refugees.” I feel like there is a racial profiling when it comes to people of color who come to America because despite living in America or any other western countries people still don't give them much respect or consideration like everyone else.
What about the European, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Cubans and all others who came here a long time ago and are no longer called “refugees?” Why is it that the label does not apply to them still like other groups?
Many resettlement organizations and agencies are maintaining the stereotype. Some service providers have not changed their language from appealing to the pity of the term “refugee” to a more empowering word. They keep labeling refugees for their business interests because the name itself shows pity, help, poverty, submission, inferiority, etc. A donor then feels like they should help a poor refugee.
I also have to mention that some refugees still label themselves refugees despite being here for many years. They forget that they have passed that stage of being a refugee and can be considered like everyone else. Even if they are still a Permanent Resident (green card holder) or a new American Citizen.
I believe that, the moment a refugee gets a chance to be resettled to the USA or any other third country resettlement they should no longer be called a “refugee.” The situation that made that person a refugee in the first place is no longer a lived reality. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defines a refugee as,
"Someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.”
Why would they need to be called a “refugee” if they are safe now, not forced to flee, no more persecution or violence targeting them?
A new terminology is needed. I personally prefer to use “Former Refugee.” This simple change can make all the difference. It reminds us that we once struggled in that life, but no more. We do not live the life of a “refugee” anymore. It sounds like freedom and a fresh start to me!
Other options include Permanent Resident (those that are not citizens yet but are legally living in the U.S., aka green card holder). After living 5 years in the U.S. a person can apply for citizenship. Once they become a citizen I believe they should be called an American, like everyone else, or a US citizen from [Country] if they want to mention where he/she comes from.
When we stop calling a former refugee a “refugee” we contribute to that person growing into a new sense of belonging, acceptance, inclusion, and consideration. This especially needs to start with former refugees themselves. We need to stop using that label among ourselves. Next, organizations need to stop using the term. Then that awareness can spread to the general public and build confidence within the community.