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Reimagining Refuge and the Meaning of Being a 'Refugee'

A note from Dr. Aaron J. Griffen, VP of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion

I visited New York recently, and while the experience was memorable, I could not help but lose myself in the constant reminder that such a great city is elevated to a status of beacon-ship. Meaning, the Statue of Liberty stands as a symbol of freedom due to the abolition of slavery. The following quote sits on the Statue of Liberty: 

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore”.

The U.S. has been watching war unfold from afar on social media or a television screen as mothers from other countries are heralded as heroes for sending their children into the world alone to seek refuge, making them refugees. Other mothers are vilified for the same hope and sacrifice. Because I am familiar with U.S. and World History, I know that at any given moment, depending on the circumstance, any of us could be an individual seeking refuge, becoming a refugee regardless of who we are.

"Anyone could become a refugee. It's a thing that happens to you, it's not who you are." - Trevor Noah

This has become more true within the U.S. borders than we may care to admit. We may view refugees as foreigners running from famine and war, but I remember the early morning on August 23, 2005 when we lost power in Houston, Texas for a few hours. Once we regained power, we turned on the news to see survivors of Hurricane Katrina being called refugees until advocates began to correct the news outlets

Borders and Refugees

The most disturbing image wasn’t the looting that came with that aftermath. It was the pictures that surfaced days later once “refugees” from New Orleans and other neighboring areas sought safety only to be turned back by armed sheriffs and law enforcement officials. The images were not from some distant “war ravaged” land, but in the United States. Where citizens, deemed “refugees” (later evacuees) could not go to a neighboring town or county for support for fear they would loot and steal. 

Similar images are surfacing in other areas around the world where those unfit to be considered refugees are denied access to evacuation procedures, safety and help. Becoming a refugee does not require war, we are all capable of becoming refugees.

Summaries: Reimaging Refugees and Support 

As politicians grapple with the politics of immigration reform and border security, it is essential we as a citizenry remember that racism, xenophobia and other -isms are the rally cries behind who gets to be a refugee and who doesn’t.

We watched as Haitian refugees were returned to Haiti as Afghan refugees were accepted. We now observe both Russian and Ukrainian refugees being discriminated against, including those of African descent. Coverage of refugee events are focused on one war ravaged region versus another. Our Ethiopian community, for example, are in the midst of the Tigray War, while the world looks away.

In our DSST community, the wars are staking their impact in ways yet realized, unseen and often ignored. Therefore, as we learn more about the needs for asylum and refuge, it is important to not group people under one umbrella term in order to politicize cries for help while excluding others as unworthy. As our communities continue to diversify, we must do our research to fully grasp the need for help and support of our staff, students and families who know the realities of refugees. They may not express it openly, but our schools must be a place of psychological and emotional safety, free of judgment but full of acknowledgment of the collective and individual experiences. 

For more information on how to support see the following resources: 

For more information on how to support students, staff and families, see the following resources

Yours in solidarity, 

Dr. Aaron J. Griffen