Rethinking the image of the poor refugee

“Overnight we had become really poor; we had become refugees. A refugee not only has no country; he also has no rights. He is a displaced person. At times he feels like a parcel which has been mailed and is moved from place to place.”

Maria Augusta von Trapp

We have all seen the Academy Award-winning movie ‘The Sound of Music’ where Maria von Trapp and family flee Nazi persecution in Austria (seeking refuge in the United States). Yes, the von Trapps were refugees. So too were former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, novelist Vladimir Nabokov, and composer/pianist Frédéric Chopin. Like the von Trapps, these refugees led more than decent lives in their country of origin. Madeleine Albright is the daughter of a diplomat and the Nabokov family was part of the Russian nobility. While Chopin was not born into wealth, his father was a learned man who provided him with the opportunities to learn music at a very young age.

Today’s image of the poor refugee fleeing to Western Europe for better economic prospects is sheer folly. A refugee can belong to any socioeconomic class in his/her country of origin. He/she can be a civil engineer, a student, a single parent trying to make ends meet, or a hopeful child longing for a brighter future. (And yes, a refugee can own an IPhone). Hence, absurd Facebook and Twitter comments like “I’ve never seen such fashionable yet poorly behaved refugees. It’s as if Rwandan refugees years ago were all sporting ‘Air Jordans’” need to stop.

What makes a person a refugee, according to the 1951 Refugee Convention, is that there is a

well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Refuges are, therefore, simply seeking a chance at freedom and life. Moreover, since refugees are often persecuted by their own governments, it is the role of the international community to protect them.

Imagine a world without the contributions of Madeleine Albright, Nabokov, Chopin or the von Trapp family (no movie in which to base The Sound of Music). Somewhere among the waves of Syrian and other refugees are individuals with the ability to positively impact the world. However, if the international community is reluctant to help, these refugees will never have the chance to reach their full potential.

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