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My family left Sudan for the United States when I was five years old. The majority of my extended family remain in Sudan, and five years have passed since I last saw them. I had planned to reunite with some of them at my graduation in just a few months. I wanted my grandmother—who married at age 12, became a mother at 13, and never had the opportunity to learn to read—to watch her granddaughter receive a medical degree from Harvard. I wanted to share a few days of American life with my Sudanese cousins who I know often wish to stand in my place, in my shoes, on American soil. I won’t hide my disappointment at the new impossibility of these wishes. But my feelings are merely a sting relative to the profound heartbreak and despair of the many more people who thought they had finally found refuge from war, sickness, and economic repression in this country.
On Oct. 3, 2016 at 1 a.m., I wrote to President Obama. In breaks between studying, I had Googled images of Omran Daqnees, the silent Syrian boy bleeding in the back an ambulance. For the next hour I was transfixed. My heart broke for the White Helmets, a motley crew of blacksmiths and teachers who quit their trades to dig their people out of rubble because no one else would.
Exasperated by the obvious vacuum of need and upset by our strong and capable country’s refusal to fill it, I went to the White House website and shared my feelings with the leader of the free world. A month later, I received an email from the White House requesting my mailing address. A few weeks after I was holding a letter that bore President Obama’s signature. It read:
“Thousands of Syrians—including many young children—face hardships and struggles that are unimaginable, and like you, I recognize that our Nation has an obligation to act. That is why the United States has helped lead the effort to mobilize aid for refugees, and it is why we have committed to accepting more refugees from around the world. We have also stepped up as the largest donor of assistance, providing $4.5 billion in aid since the start of the conflict. Please know I will continue doing everything I can to help those in need and ensure America remains what it has always been—a beacon of hope to all who seek it.”
Excited as I was to receive mail from President Obama (or his aides), I was severely disappointed by the response. Miffed by the letter’s defensive tone, I thought, clearly he doesn’t see that we should be doing more. We should be accepting more refugees.
Now that Trump has brandished his executive authority to ban refugees and migrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, I can only feel two great ironies when I think back on that letter. This first is my assured assumption that America’s empathy was only capable of growing, not withering. I never considered—as a true possibility—that our country would take action to effectively extinguish the beacon of hope this country represents. The second irony is that our new President would reject not only Syrian refugees, but my own Sudanese family, too.
When I told my cousins in Sudan about President Obama’s response, they begged me to send another letter asking him to do away with US sanctions against Sudan. Omar Al Bashir, the President of Sudan, is an autocrat who came into power through a military coup d’état and remained President for over 27 years. The grievances against him are long and include genocide in Darfur that lead to a warrant for his arrest by the International Criminal Court in 2009.
The United States has rhetorically reprimanded Omar Al Bashir, but it is the Sudanese people who have had to suffer on his behalf. Many have died trying to protest against him. Decades of trade embargos and restrictions as well as pervasive government corruption have lead to rampant inflation that translated to everyday hardships for the working class in Sudan.
The heartbreaking stories of the Syrian people and the Sudanese people is all too similar to those of Iraqi, Libyan, Somalian, Iranian, and Yemeni people. The theme is clear: entire nations of people must suffer for the actions of the few and powerful. Another theme also exists: America is the safe haven that is most sought-after by these people. President Obama was correct about that in his letter; America has always been a “beacon of hope for all who seek it.”
Millions worldwide want to migrate to the United States. The American Dream ethos that captivates and elicits longing in the hearts of so many people around the world is not of achieving tremendous wealth or power; it’s a basic yearning for the stability of a home address, the satisfaction of a full belly, the peace of mind of a routine primary care visit, and the guarantee of human rights.
As Americans, we sometimes take our privileges for granted, so much so that we can’t see that America is already great. We have been so hardened by the actions of a few, that we believe entire nations of people despise us. This could not be further from the truth. Refugees love our country more than we do and theirs is the ultimate unrequited love.
Hazar Khidir is a fourth year student at Harvard Medical School.
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