This Tuesday, December 10th, is Human Rights Day, a celebration of the passing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) 71 years ago. It’s a day that symbolizes for many the birth of modern human rights, for others it marks the moment the world’s best and brightest drew a line in the sand because they believed each and every man, woman, and child should live free from fear.
Article 14 of the Declaration drafted in part by Eleanor Roosevelt guarantees the right to seek and enjoy asylum in other countries. Shortly thereafter, the United Nations officially defined the term refugee, laid out the rights of those granted refugee status, and firmly established that refugees or asylum seekers, under international law, shall not be returned to a country in which they could be subjected to persecution.
The Declaration was a promise not to repeat the mistakes of our past. In the lead up to World War II, the United States famously turned away the MS St. Louis, a ship filled with 937 mostly Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria. After its return to Europe, 254 passengers who were on that ship were murdered in the Holocaust. In the years that followed the United States tightened its immigration system, making it harder for Jewish refugees to enter at a time when fleeing their country was their only option for survival. It was only after the war, when our leaders learned of the horrors of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and others, that we were moved to establish a system of protection for the persecuted.
Because of this system, Georgia’s communities have welcomed survivors of genocide and ethnic violence from such places as Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Darfur, and Burma (Myanmar). They breathe free here, keeping their cultures and traditions alive while building new ones in their new homes.
But today our nation’s legacy of welcome and protection is hanging on by a thread. The United States has on average welcomed 95,000 refugees a year since the formal passage of the Refugee Act of 1980 — yet this year the administration has set a cap of only 18,000 refugees.
These attempts to ban refugees shows our moral failing as a nation, one that surely would disappoint the authors of the Universal Declaration were they alive today.
Refugee resettlement has brought tremendous benefits to our nation and our community. Working in refugee resettlement for over two decades, I have met some truly remarkable people. Earlier this year, my colleague, Abu Talib, welcomed his fourth child into the world. His wife, Umi, passed her citizenship test while in active labor, delivering him just 4 hours after she learned that she would become a United States citizen. Abu Talib is a case aide with New American Pathways, the refugee resettlement organization in which I serve as CEO.
Abu fled Burma at the age of 14, risking his life with the hope that he could find safety elsewhere. Abu is part of the Rohingya, a minority group in Burma (Myanmar) who face tremendous persecution. The boat he took passage on was lost at sea — he and his fellow asylum seekers went without food and water for 17 days until they were rescued.
Five years after that treacherous journey, Abu set foot in Atlanta as a refugee. He got here because of the indomitable nature of the human spirit, he remains because 71 years ago America stood on the side of people like him, and in turn they are dedicating their lives to give back. He’s now spending his time and talents to help other newcomers succeed in our community. Here in Atlanta, Abu has found success in his career, married Umi, and now has four children. He and Umi purchased their first home this year and he is preparing to take his citizenship test in 2020.
People like Abu and Umi make Atlanta a better place to live. They build businesses, volunteer in their communities, and work to build a bright future for all of us.
On this Human Rights Day we celebrate the ways that the Universal Declaration made the path for us to welcome the persecuted, and we stand in solidarity with those who remain in danger because of the cruel policies in place today.
As we esteem those who saw the need to create such a powerful commitment to universal human rights, we also must vow to uphold their legacy. Instead of considering the politics of welcoming those in danger, let’s consider the costs of not doing so.
Paedia Mixon is CEO of New American Pathways in Atlanta.
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