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No longer Us versus Them: Reflections on forced migration in a globalized world

Over the weekend, I went to an amazing Ethiopian restaurant here in Nairobi. Most of the standard tables were full so I got to sit in this beautifully decorated open air ceremonial space where the famously strong coffee was being prepared and a lovely quirky incense was burning nearby.

Taking in my surroundings, one word rose to the front of my mind: MIGRATION. It felt so natural and simple as I looked at the Ethiopian flag decorating the back wall and watched waiters walk out balancing heaping plates of injera. I was reminded how nearly all of my favorites foods (and music, and literature, and technology, even my religion… ) I only know because of migration.

My curiosity about this particular incense led me to a 2-hour conversation with Daniel, one of the wait staff at the restaurant. When I mentioned I worked at the Norwegian Refugee Council, his face lit up, and he gestured at himself: “That’s me. I’m a refugee.” He cautiously suggested that we could perhaps talk more about if there was a way I could maybe help him. I am sure I winced a bit as I explained somewhat sheepishly how NGOs are limited in their ability to provide or even advocate for “durable” (long-term) solutions for refugees given the inherently political nature of a) returns, b) integrations, and c) resettlements, and the conflict this creates with the essential humanitarian principle of neutrality.

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Daniel is Eritrean, but grew up in Ethiopia before fleeing again to Kenya. From Nairobi, he applied with UNHCR for resettlement to a “third country” (such as the US or Norway) 10+ years ago, but still hasn’t been granted any opportunity and likely never will be. Something like <1% of refugees are given a chance for formal resettlement… and the number of offered places continues to shrink every day.

Daniel is a medical professional by training, but in Nairobi he works as a waiter. Despite residing in Kenya for 10+ years, Daniel still is not allowed any authorization to work here — even his restaurant job is technically illegal. He tells me that last Friday the authorities came and arrested many of his Ethiopian colleagues working at the restaurant for not having employment permits in Kenya. I asked Daniel how he managed not to get sent to jail as well, and he looked down at his well-to-do outfit: “I dress like this, so that when the police come, I can just sit down at a table, and they think I am a customer. I hide.”

Daniel’s story is not one you would see in a gripping refugee fundraising advert, but it reflects today’s reality where most global asylum seekers are stuck in a frustrating and fragile limbo, having traded their basic citizenship rights of being able to work, to go to school, to own property, etc. in exchange for the most basic assurance of safety from violence for their families. Without their universal rights being respected by the host communities, their futures are precarious, and their economic livelihoods subject to the whims of local authorities.

(To be very clear, I am not trying to paint a picture of refugees as helpless or unable to be self-sufficient in any way — quite the opposite. The reality is there is an immense global power dynamic at play here that is easy to forget when the system works in your favor, kind of like white privilege or holding a US passport. Refugees are extraordinarily resilient and are continually innovating in the face of impossible obstacles… the question is why are there so many obstacles in the first place?)

Refugees are no one’s responsibility… therefore shouldn’t they be everyone’s priority?

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Today’s refugee crisis is of course incredible in terms of sheer volume, but perhaps even more importantly in its duration. Many countries like Somalia, Afghanistan, and DR Congo have been in and out of conflict mode for decades. While the humanitarian community is equipped (and to a lesser extent funded) to deliver emergency food and shelter, the only viable long-term solutions for refugees require political actions, and call for governments to step up and make a conscious decision to engage. Refugees are no one’s responsibility… therefore shouldn’t they be everyone’s priority?

In particular, countries need to start seeing refugees as job MAKERS rather than job TAKERS. Think of how many immigrant-run businesses there are in your community that contribute to the local economy and culture. This packed Ethiopian restaurant in Nairobi was even creating jobs for many Kenyans who may otherwise have been unemployed. Migration is not and never has been a zero-sum game, but there seem to be people who want us to believe that’s the case, and create unnecessary divisions between “us” and “them” — ironically and perhaps even dangerously fostering the same kind of “other” mentality that sparks many refugee crises in the first place.

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Today I am traveling in Armenia with a dear friend I met in Rwanda. While my broad travels have exposed me to many amazing and beautiful things, I’m also reminded (by these 2 countries in particular) of how feeble we can be as a human race and how susceptible we are to the unthinkable. We said “never again” many times in the 20th century, and yet still we have genocide happening here in the 21st, with little being done to address it.

When will we start to allow our empathy to traverse through borders, rather than building literal and figurative walls so we don’t have to see what we don’t want to see? When will we make it known with actions, and not just words, our belief that all people are equally valuable and deserving of the same rights and opportunities? When will we accept that the sacredness of our shared identity as the human race should be regarded so much more highly than the man-made construct that is contemporary nationality?

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I bought some of that incredible Ethiopian frankincense in bulk from Daniel, even though I’m pretty sure I don’t have the right materials to safely burn it where I live in Oslo. It will fit in nicely next to my Swedish furniture, Indian scarves, Cuban rum, Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek bible… you get the picture.

Sharing my older writings — Written on 09 August 2018

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Amateur writer. Idealist businesswoman. Eternal student. Let’s talk about social justice and what it means to be.

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