By: Sylvia Nyamuhungu, Treetops Community Connector
As humans, we are born into this world and into situations that are out of our control.
There are children born in the midst of war, with no one prepared to take care of them; children who are taught to fight from the day they were born. Other children are born into families that have saved money and prepared diligently for months ahead of their arrival.
These children share a common humanity; they are just born into different situations in different parts of the world.
Yet, many people are perceived to be less than because of their status and the circumstances they are born into. They are regarded as burdens and are patronized by more privileged individuals who mean well.
Societal structures, life situations, and biases lead some people to be proud of themselves and lead others to hate themselves and resent their life.
I remember as a kid, I grew up being ashamed of the fact that I was a refugee. In Kenya, I had no problem fitting in because I was the same skin color as everyone around me. Additionally, my family sought refuge in Kenya when I was only a couple of months old, so I fit in socially and culturally.
However, I still worked very hard so that my peers would never perceive me as an outsider or a refugee.
Being a refugee is not something one should feel the need to hide about themselves. But it’s what lies behind being recognized as a refugee that one is often afraid to come to terms with.
What lies behind that label is feeling like a burden or someone who has nothing to contribute to the world. At times, it means feeling suffocated and tied in one place because of a lack of resources and legal rights to actively engage as a civilian.
It is the constant awareness that the world is against you and that you were, in fact, born on the wrong side of the world.
It is feeling that you do not fully belong in any place because of how many times you have had to move in search of peace.
It is the realization that you might never be able to go back to your home country that you are fleeing, that this new strange place is your home for the rest of your life—and that is if you get the chance to leave the refugee camps at all.
Being known as a refugee is the constant experience of patronization from people who mean well and want to “help” you.
When I tell someone that I used to be a refugee, I always notice an instant change in the way they interact with me; suddenly, having been a refugee becomes my identity. Being a refugee for a long time, you become very good at reading the body language you receive from telling someone you are or were a refugee before.
All of this makes you feel like less than others, and that is why people like me worked very hard when we were young to hide our status of being a refugee, an identity which I did not want to come to terms with or want others to be aware of.
I have reached a point in my life where I do not give the word refugee any power over me. I know I am much more than that status—a status that I have often conflated my whole complex human identity with.
Yes, being a refugee did shape who I am, but it is not who I am entirely.
I am also a human who struggles with procrastination and at times feel overwhelmed with day-to-day life challenges.
I am one who has been heartbroken many times, one who has had to be forgiven and to forgive others countless times.
I am one who locks her car keys in her car all the time.
I am a 23-year-old who just received her undergraduate degree, who now has a full-time job and is learning about how to make a budget and use her money wisely to be able to pay student loans.
It is essential to recognize that my refugee story does not highlight the journey of every refugee.
My mother's story looks very different, and the same is true for my sister, my friends who were once refugees, and current refugees all over the world.
Being a refugee can happen to anyone at any time. It should never be a crime to flee from your country to save your life. Current and former refugees are some of the most resilient people in the world. Just like you, they are human beings with potential, hopes, dreams, and unique gifts to share—they are the farthest thing from a burden. I encourage you to get a chance to know someone who has experienced displacement or forced migration, because trust me, you will not regret it.
World Refugee Day is coming up on June 20, but here at Treetops, we’re making all of June #WorldRefugeeMonth. And as we celebrate refugees this month, we remember that being a “refugee” is a temporary status and not a primary marker of identity. We remember the unique individuality and humanity each person carries, regardless of their status.