Washington DC, USA – Amid a global debate about the responsibility of nations to accept refugees, and a US presidential election that frequently uses immigration as both a bellwether and a weapon, 37 new Americans took the oath of citizenship at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on World Refugee Day.
Many of the men and women from the 17 countries represented came to the United States on refugee or asylum status, and for some of those gathered to watch, the location, and the day, carried special significance.
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Kurt Pauly and his family fled Germany in 1936, living in Palestine for two years until immigrating to the US. “Whenever you become a citizen of a new country, it’s a very solemn kind of thing. People come here for a reason,” said Pauly who is a volunteer at the museum since 1992.
“You leave behind so much when you become a citizen. You leave your entire life behind.”
According to the most recent Annual Flow Repor (PDF) issued by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics, 69,975 people were admitted to the US as refugees in 2014.
The figure was just shy of the 70,000 refugee allowance set by President Barack Obama and the US Congress. The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR estimates that there are 65.3 million people globally who have been forcibly displaced from their homes, 21.3 million of whom are refugees.
“Holocaust survivors have a special appreciation for the plight of refugees fleeing persecution and violence, as well as the unique opportunities America affords us – allowing its citizens to live productively in and contribute to a free and just society,” Sara Bloomfield, director of the museum, said during the ceremony.
The international framework for refugees and stateless people in its current form has its origins in the massive movement of people following WWII.
While there were informal humanitarian efforts in place at the time, they were voluntary, and response varied widely from country to country.
In 1939, US officials turned away a ship filled with Jewish refugees attempting to dock in Miami. The ship was forced to return to Europe. The museum, which consists of three floors of artefacts, video footage and personal narratives, includes discussions on propaganda, terror, violence and state-sponsored racism.
Alex Ogbamichael, one of the newly minted Americans, told Al Jazeera that after leaving his native Eritrea, he spent several years as a refugee in Hong Kong and Sudan before arriving in the US in 2011.
“Right now, there’s no peace in my country,” Ogbamichael said. “There is no light.”
Several US officials told their own stories of emigration, including Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who spoke of his stepfather’s survival from Auschwitz and Dachau, and Leon Rodriguez, director of the US Customs and Immigration Services, who spoke of his grandparents’ journey from Turkey and Poland to Cuba in the 1920s.
“The fundamental difference between then and now is that there are legal frameworks for accepting refugees in a way that didn’t exist before the Holocaust,” Shelley Pitterman, the UNHCR regional representative for the US and the Caribbean, told Al Jazeera.
“We now have a protection regime, and the international community recognises its responsibility to refugees and people in forced migration. There is a network of organisations and a capacity to respond – to address the needs of people when they flee and help find solutions for them.”
Hostile political environments
Despite the frameworks in place, an increasingly hostile political environment is having very real repercussions on the US responsibility to the global humanitarian crisis.
“The vitriol puts a heavy continuing burden on host countries, whose material needs aren’t being met, which impacts security issues and political problems in those countries, which are otherwise doing well,” Pitterman said.
“It also reinforces the model of smuggling and trafficking that further victimises these people, which makes it even harder for the states to manage their own borders, which is the core fear about this entire issue,” he explained.
“It also comes from fear; fear of the other, fear of loss of identity,” Pitterman continued. “Strangely enough, the advocates for closing borders are encouraging smuggling, which is then able to further undermine the security of national borders and further victimise the people that we care for.”
At the Holocaust Museum on World Refugee Day, however, several new citizens, holding their official papers, said they felt no such hostility. Ogbamichael said he was not concerned about calls to limit refugees.
Pauly, the Holocaust survivor, said the anger directed at people coming from other places is nothing new. “There’s been some of that in all of American history.”
This was the first naturalisation ceremony held at the museum, welcoming as new citizens people from countries across the world, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Laos, Liberia, Mauritania, Nepal, the Philippines, Russia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan and Vietnam.
Holding his two-year-old son, Ahmed Hamad, who had taken the oath of citizenship, beamed as he posed in front of an American flag.
The Sudanese-born said his decision to become an American citizen was an easy one: “It’s for a better future for this one,” he said, as his son played and waved a small American flag.
“It’s for a better life for all of us.”
Follow Molly McCluskey on Twitter: @MollyEMcCluskey