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Volunteer Diaries: "Refugee"

I wish you could see it; the way they normalize these absolute crimes against humanity.

“He doesn’t have his passport.” “What happened to it, did it get stolen?” “He had it in his bag but he dropped the bag. When you run across the border and they’re shooting at you, you drop the bag.”

“The police were beating us and beating anyone with their phone or money twice as badly so we threw them into the woods so they wouldn’t hurt us.”

“They put us in the back of a jeep and drove for a long time with no water. It was so hot two guys fainted.”

“We were scared that they would see us so we ran into the woods and hid. Unfortunately they found us, they beat us and took our phones. They tore up our passports in front of us. That night they tied our hands and put us on a boat. They took us into the ocean and beat us until we got into life rafts then pushed us back to Turkey.”

Seventy years ago, the 1951 Refugee Convention was signed. This convention was designed to reinforce human rights and ensure that those rendered vulnerable by conflict and displacement would be given a linear and legal path to safety. It baffles me how far from this ideal reality has become.

Like many people, I joined the humanitarian sector with a distorted view of the reality for forced migrants. I only understood the word "refugee" as a casual adjective tied to the headlines plastered across newspapers around the world. My only understanding was tied to facts and figures, maybe the occasional exception like the tiny body of Aylan Kurdi washed ashore on the sandy beach of Turkey. How foolish I was. How foolish to think that a document drafted decades ago in the wake of a world war would be adequately upheld in through an industrial revolution and rapid globalization at a scale that wasn't even imaginable in 1951. How foolish I was to think that we wouldn't have to fight tooth and nail to keep the right people at the center of this narrative.

A phrase we now throw around so casually in the mainstream narrative that we seem to have lost sight of the weight this word carries not just in the immense amount of hardship one must have to endure to be recognized as a refugee, but also in the responsibility we have to those who are displaced or living in conflict.

These aren’t strategic pieces or numbers. Every single person fleeing their home, every one of these quotes comes from a human being whose existence is being minimized by this sick system.

They have hopes and dreams and people who love them. I will never stop saying that. They also have favorite foods and songs and lots of followers on TikTok. They make delicious dishes and have prayer beads that never stop dancing across their fingers. When I hear their voices or the rhythm of their footfalls I know who is coming because he has a name and a smile and a million and one details that makes him the delightful person that he is. He has an identity and a life he’s had to leave behind. He wants to go home.

If you have ever humored the idea of migrants coming to the west because they only long for its riches, please do me a favor and pick a diaspora culture. Any one will do. Pick a song or a recipe or even something as simple as a textile- if you look and listen carefully, you will realize it is woven with love and pride for their homeland.

From Palestine the oil pressed from ancient olive trees runs like viscous tears. We pour it generously over plates of hummus or lather it across our bodies as a tonic for dry skin and broken souls. Their textiles tell the story of olive branches, fisherman, and trade routes as old as time. Soulful Syrian ballads speak of the highest loves. Intricately carved furniture inlayed with mother of pearl or tediously hand painted Qurans allow long-deceased craftsmen to live on in eternity. Afghan poetry is written in one of the oldest languages in the world. It speaks to your soul. You can smell the crisp mountain air of the Hindu Kush or hear the winds blowing across the expansive plains. Their longing for home and the grief of leaving it behind are tangible. But here they are dodging bullets at borders and becoming pawns when the imperialists sit down for another game of chess.

A case number.

A fact or figure.


“Could you imagine if this was your son?” My friend asked me one day after we listened to a dense and weighted interview about border crossings and access to asylum services. I cut her off. “No. I can’t imagine that. Because it’s hard enough when he’s my brother.”

How have we drifted so far from the promise of this convention?

How have we allowed the narrative to shift from protecting the supposedly irrefutable rights of all human brings to securing our borders and societies from "the other"?

How can you be comfortable living among twisted souls who think that beating another human being within an inch of their life or sending them to their death is an act of patriotism? Or anyone who thinks that humanity is a fair trade for a nation? Secure borders do not equate to safety or freedom especially when your facade of security only stems from abuse of power against a non-existent enemy. There is no religion, tribe, or nation higher than humanity.

As we reflect on the strengths and the shortcomings of the 1951 Refugee Convention, may I humbly remind you of the billions of names, faces, and stories who have been tied to this document for seventy years. For better or for worse.

Human beings. Beautiful, authentic, resilient.

May we remember that and keep forging forward in our quest to right this ship that we've allowed to drift astray.

In Solidarity,

Madi Williamson

Executive Director at In-Sight Collaborative

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