This month, President Joe Biden will sign a new presidential resolution on refugee admissions, which sets the goal for refugee resettlement this coming year. Around the world, this number is recognized as an important sign of America’s commitment to refugees and protecting the most vulnerable.
Years ago I was one of those refugees. I was born in Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in Kenya, where my mother and older siblings ended up in 1992 after fleeing the civil war in Somalia. The camp was safer than the war, but it was a difficult place to grow up. Most of the people did not have enough food or water, and we only survived thanks to my mother’s work as a midwife.
When I was nine years old, we moved to Boise. The transition was not always easy. I was the only Black person in my class and had to learn a new language. It was especially difficult for my mother, who could not continue her career in the United States despite her many credentials. However, it was also exciting. We met many people in Idaho who supported us, and I learned the power of self-advocacy.
I taught English, attended Boise State University, and recently moved to Minneapolis to pursue a master’s degree in development practice. With the support of my community, I overcame social and systemic obstacles meant to send me out. Like any refugee, I survived and I am resilient. When I left Idaho, my mother said to me, “Allah Qof kastaa ha ka keggi omadataa iyo aabbahaa.” That translates to, “I pray that everyone you meet becomes your mother and your father,” meaning people who love and care for you. To me, that is the spirit of welcome that so many refugees bring to this country – and that, in its best moments, this country gives us.
Unfortunately, that official welcome has declined in recent years. The Trump administration slashed the refugee resettlement program and although President Biden has worked to increase our resettlement goal to 125,000 refugees over the last two years, we have come nowhere near that number. This year, the United States is on track to meet less than half of its goal.
This is a tragedy, not just for refugees who are denied the chance to restart their lives in safety, but for all Americans. Beyond humanitarian obligations, refugees enrich our communities in ways big and small. Refugees bring unique skills, experiences and perspectives that improve this country’s culture and economy and stimulate innovation. When we are given the opportunity to thrive, everyone benefits.
As a former refugee, I am truly grateful to be here. I have had opportunities and met many people who have helped me, and I am now in a place where I can give back. And I know I’m not unique. When refugees are given the opportunity to work and achieve our goals, we always give back to our communities and the people who helped us. No matter where we come from, it is a common value we share.
To me, that looks like advocating for policy changes that benefit my community. Through my mother’s experience, I saw firsthand the reality that many refugees cannot continue their careers because their degrees or certifications are not accepted in this country. There is an urgent need for partnerships and policy solutions to unlock the potential of immigrant professionals and bridge the gap between their skills and employment opportunities. That’s why I founded the Circle of Excellence, a grassroots organization dedicated to raising awareness, advocating for equal employment practices, and pushing for systemic reforms to address the problem of brain drain in refugee and immigrant communities.
Welcoming refugees requires more than just words or empty gestures, which is why, ahead of this year’s presidential election, I am calling on the Biden administration to invest the resources needed to rebuild the resettlement program. to resettle refugees and help recent newcomers use their skills for the benefit of the country. By investing in refugee resettlement, you are investing in America’s future.
Halima Hamud is a graduate student, community organizer, and refugee leader from Boise, Idaho.
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