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An Ethiopian refugee asks: Are we treating each other with enough compassion?

By Kiflu HussainJune 1, 2015

A refugee camp in Uganda
A refugee camp in Uganda Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images News

I don’t know how the fad began for the United Nations to designate each day as an international cause day. When I first became aware of this trend, I collated it — forgive my “heathen” mind — with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s tradition, which dedicates every day of every month to its angels and saints. While those who invest their time in the celestial world are passionate, and accordingly observe their religious days seriously, the same cannot be said about activists or do-gooders in the secular world for the days, which are marked for humanitarian causes.

What set me to thinking about this is June 20, 2015: World Refugee Day (WRD). Until I ended up as a refugee in Uganda in January 2007, I had no idea the UN had dedicated a day to: “Honor the courage, strength and determination of people who are forced to flee their homeland under the threat of persecution, conflict and violence” as well as to “recognize the contributions of refugees” to the community that hosts them. 

Before I fled from my home country, Ethiopia, I met Somali refugees. While I never entertained grudging feelings towards them, I also never bothered to ask how they were faring in my country, and whether they found Ethiopians welcoming. I never asked if the people they met here helped them battle the frequent pangs of homesickness.

When my own turn came to be a refugee — as per the “occupational disease” that any denizen of a failed state or banana republic is likely to suffer — my mind went back not only to the Somalis, but also to a Congolese refugee who rented a room at my mother’s place. Looking back, after having seen the pattern of displacement crisis first hand, I found it strange for that Congolese young man to end up as a refugee in Ethiopia. 

Normally, Somalis flee to Ethiopia or Kenya first, due to the contiguity of borders. Likewise, Congolese refugees flock to Uganda, Tanzania or Rwanda. It beats me, therefore, how that Congolese boy wandered into Ethiopia. Despite being the seat of African Union (AU), I am ashamed to admit that my country is difficult — for a fellow African, for a visiting tourist, let alone for a refugee. Those who withstand the initial aloofness and apparent condescension of Ethiopians, though, gradually experience the generosity and proverbial Ethiopian hospitality.

One such example was my mom’s treatment of her Congolese refugee tenant. More than a decade ago, when I went to visit her, she complained that the tenant, on top of coming home tipsy during the wee hours and making noise, was late paying his rent.


I too, after 7 years of protracted refugee life in Uganda, resettled in Dallas — as per the UN’s principle of finding a “durable solution” for refugees.

When I asked why she wouldn't kick him out, my mother retracted her complaint and said, “What! That’s a sin. Whom does he have here? You can’t do that to a boy! You don’t know what will happen to your own boys.”

Indeed, a few years down the line, my mom — a mother of five boys and no girls — lost her firstborn to exile life. Meanwhile, after living in Ethiopia for nearly 7 years, the Congolese refugee and my mother’s former tenant resettled in the United States.

Life is stranger than fiction. I too, after 7 years of protracted refugee life in Uganda, resettled in Dallas — as per the UN’s principle of finding a “durable solution” for refugees.

The Moral of the Story

To have empathy for my fellow refugees, I had to experience the same unfortunate situation. Yet, people like my mom — who have never heard about the 1951 Refugee Convention, about World Refugee Day, or even about international mother’s day — show compassion naturally.

How do we combine the wisdom of the simple compassion of simple folks to make an impact? 

Theme for this year’s World Refugee Day is: With courage let’s all combine. It makes me wonder: How do we combine the wisdom of the simple compassion of simple folks to make an impact? Is it by castigating the xenophobic attack on African migrants in South Africa, by reminding them that not long ago they too were refugees all over Africa? Is it by pointing out the not-so-refugee-friendly attitude of Yemenis (until recently), who are now desperately seeking refuge — even in Somalia? Is it in bad taste to remind people in the West, who elect politicians based on the stance and promises they make on the topic of migrants, of the times they were displaced during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, or during the 2011 Queensland flood in Australia?