How children without refuge celebrate World Refugee Day

By Emily Esmaili

Guest columnist

Refugees and migrants disembark from a ferry after their arrival at the port of Piraeus near Athens, on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016.
Refugees and migrants disembark from a ferry after their arrival at the port of Piraeus near Athens, on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016. AP

Children will always find a way to celebrate. Some will transform a pile of cans into a drum ensemble. Some will blow balloons out of colorful clinic gloves, and proceed to startle themselves with a pop. Some will fly kites made from recycled life vests. And some will simply enjoy another glorious day of predictability and play -- even when living in a refugee camp.

Today, on World Refugee Day, I think about children around the world who are born as refugees, or have stumbled into a camp such as ones I have seen in Rwanda, Uganda, Thailand or Greece.

These children not only celebrate the countries and communities that have taken them in, but pray that their friends left behind will also have a home soon.

Children are also keenly aware, and never forget being wronged. They remember our shared failure when so many of them were swallowed up by the sea –or by lurking traffickers – while trying to cross over into safety. They hear the hate-laced rhetoric that keeps getting louder, and they watch detention centers, fences and walls that keep growing taller.

Last year on World Refugee Day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated: "Our responses to refugees must be grounded in our shared values of responsibility sharing, non-discrimination, and human rights and in international refugee law, including the principle of non-refoulement."

While it is true we have not “refouled” refugees by forcing them back into their unstable home countries, we have perhaps committed a larger foul – allowing discrimination to grow, and even more walls to be built in the name of national security.

Young refugees come to us from some of the most dangerous places: They have been stolen and starved, electrocuted and prostituted. Their wide little eyes have seen horrors they never will forget. These children often arrive terrified, but they are certainly not terrorists.They deserve a place of refuge.

As a pediatrician, children show me day after day, in their tirelessly brilliant way, how they are anything but threatening, and why they deserve the same rights as those born into different circumstances. Some come to me with difficulty hearing and speaking after a blast struck too close to their heads. Some come with an amputated limb after playing with a “bombie,” one of many unexploded ordnances littering fields and forests of Southeast Asia. Many come terrified of the bullies who torment them for being Muslim.

As an Iranian-American, I too was once a Muslim-reared schoolgirl, and I can sympathize. And yet, I sometimes wonder at how different life would be had I been born to Iranian refugees rather than to my more fortunate Iranian immigrant parents.

Here is where we have failed. Regardless of immigration status, all children deserve to be protected, supported and celebrated; children must never be political currency.

But despite such injustices, and despite their dire circumstances, children will still conspire to find fun. I have seen them race miniature cars made from plastic bottle caps, and create hide-and-go-seek fortresses out of their family’s tents while living in drafty warehouses, awaiting resettlement.

At my refugee clinic in Durham, this is no different. My small, but cunning patients ask for games of chase as they race up and down our long halls, dizzy themselves on swiveling chairs, and revel in otoscopes that light up when you grab them off the wall.

Pediatricians have the unfair advantage of spending our working lives with a bright and resilient cohort of humanity who remind us to celebrate at every opportunity. Recently, for example, when the State Department lifted refugee resettlement restrictions, the children reminded us to celebrate. And when the federal appeals court rejected the revised travel ban, again they reminded us to celebrate. Our patients are a daily reminder of human plasticity and perseverance. They remind us of the power of hope, second chances and forgiveness.

So, on World Refugee Day, let us heed their example and celebrate our victories. With childlike solidarity, let us advocate for policies that support children and families seeking asylum in our country. Those who fall between countries do not deserve to fall between the cracks; they too deserve a place of refuge. They too deserve to be celebrated.

Emily Esmaili is a pediatrician at Lincoln Community Health Center in Durham and senior research fellow at Duke’s Center for Health Policy and Inequalities Research.