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Image: Dadaab Refugee Camp: 20 Years On
Dai Kurokawa  /  EPA
Somali mothers wait with their malnourished children at a clinic at a sprawling refugee camp in Dadaab, northeastern Kenya, on June 17.
updated 6/20/2011 9:39:55 AM ET 2011-06-20T13:39:55

"It was not safe and I had nowhere to go." — Hiroe Nagase

These were the words I heard my mother speak as she remembered the day World War II  arrived on her doorstep. At just 16, she had emerged from a bomb shelter and saw virtually nothing left standing after the air raid that made her run for her life.

I imagined her terror in that chaos, and tried to empathize with her feeling that she may not survive.

Still, only recently did I connect the experience of hearing her story in our living room in tiny Ashland, Oregon, to what motivates my constant effort to give voice to refugees of war, hunger, disease and especially genocide and ethnic cleansing.

I realize now that I don't see these refugees as people of another world but rather as us: our mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters and sons. They suffer the tragedies that have persistently haunted our human history, so persistently that it is reasonable to ask, how many among us aren't the progeny of refugees in one generation or another?  

Even today as I write this, refugees are fleeing from Syria into Turkey, from Yemen into Europe, from Sudan's north-south border at Abyei, just as we have seen refugees flee Rwanda, Kosovo, Congo, Burma, Darfur and Germany, to name just a few in our own time.

When, at age 12, I first heard about the Holocaust, what stunned me most was discovering that not only did people risk their own lives to save Jews, they risked their children's lives as well.

Imagine what a world it would be if every human being had that kind of courage. Those brave people who stood against Hitler must be the forerunners for the greater, more compassionate humankind we are evolving into. 

Click for related content: Do 1 Thing campaign, UNHCR

In my own experience, nowhere is this compassion more evident than in the refugees themselves.

On the edge of Kosovo, I watched refugees fleeing into Macedonia, the sounds of war at their backs. But they were not safe even when they finally stopped to rest, with Macedonians pointing guns at them to stop them in their tracks. Yet, despite her desperate, weeping state, a woman who had nothing offered me a bite from her little can of food.

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On the edge of Darfur, I met a black African woman who was pregnant when she and her little sister were attacked by an Arab militia. She told us that in order to save her sister, she sent her in the opposite direction; she waved her arms so the men would follow her instead. They did, and she suffered so terribly she barely survived. When I asked why she did it, she said, "My sister was too young to have such things happen to her." She didn't lose the baby, and as I took his photo in a refugee camp in neighboring Chad, I realized that at two years old, he was already not just a refugee, but a survivor.

And in Congo, where the deadliest war since World War II is still raging, I met Sifa. She was about 16 when she saw her mother and father killed. The killers then kidnapped her and chained her to a tree, and kept her tied there, using rape as a weapon of war. When she could no longer walk, they left her for dead. Men from a nearby village risked their lives to rescue her. She was, it turned out, pregnant, but she was so broken the baby died.

By the time I found her, she was in the operating room, where a doctor told me he was trying to repair all the physical damage that had been done. She looked deep into my eyes, her expression almost pleading. Now 18, shivering naked under a blanket, her hand was shaking violently from the cold and fear. I took her hand and held it, reassuring her as best I could until it was time for the doctor to begin.

Returning the next day, I found her in the recovering room, where she told me all that had happened. And so I asked her if she wanted revenge. And this is what she said:

“No. All I want is to rise from this bed and thank the people who rescued and took care of me.  And work for God to help others. And maybe if I am lucky someday, I will feel a mother’s love again.”

These refugees and internally displaced people have a lot to teach us about resilience and courage. They seem to embody what the author Elizabeth Kubler-Ross once wrote: “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

My mother was beautiful in this way, and helped move me to compassion. World Refugee Day is a reminder that there is no "us" and "them."  There is only us, one human family, connected in ways we sometimes forget.

Photos: Fleeing Libya: Refugees face peril

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  1. Men, who formerly worked in Libya, line up to board buses for a refugee camp near Ras Ajdir, Tunisia, on March 15, 2011. Since violent unrest broke out in Libya in February, more than 550,000 people, mostly migrant workers, have left Libya for neighboring countries, primarily Tunisia and Egypt, according to the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees. (Emilio Morenatti / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A migrant worker from Ghana, who fled the unrest in Libya, carries her baby and belongings as they arrive in a refugee camp in Tunisia, about 4 miles from the border crossing at Ras Ajdir on March 21, 2011. Refugees faced an uncertain future in the crowded camps. The UN refugee agency described one camp in the area as having a "general atmosphere of lawlessness" that led to protests, and even deadly violence, over the extended stays. (Laura Leon Gomez / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Men, who used to work in Libya but fled the unrest there, are seen next to their tents in a refugee camp at the Tunisia-Libya border, in Ras Ajdir, Tunisia, on March 5, 2011. The sudden influx of tens of thousands of refugees left camps short of food, shelter and toilets. (Emilio Morenatti / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A stranded foreign refugee reacts after being informed that his name is not on the passenger list of a ship evacuating wounded Libyans and refugees fleeing the war zone in Misrata, Libya, on April 20, 2011. International aid groups and foreign governments scrambled to provide needed transportation for workers fleeing the country's civil war. (Nasser Nasser / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A worker from Ghana, who fled the unrest in Libya, walks alongside a road after crossing from Libya into Tunisia at Ras Ajdir on March 19, 2011. Some workers had brief waits before being repatriated to their homeland, while others had to endure extended stays in crowded camps. (Emilio Morenatti / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. African migrants and refugees flee the fighting in Misrata on April 27, 2011. They were on their way to be evacuated by an International Organization for Migration (IOM) ship bound for the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Migrants and Libyans aboard an International Organization of Migration ship depart the restive port city of Misrata on May 4, 2011. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Children wait with their mother to disembark a ship in Benghazi, Libya, on April 15, 2011. The family evacuated Misrata amidst the fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Nearly 1,200 Asian and African migrants escaped from war-torn Misrata that day, evacuated by international aid organizations. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Rescuers help people who were forced into the sea after a boat carrying some 250 migrants from Libya crashed into rocks as they tried to enter the port of Pantelleria, an island off the southern coast of Italy, on April 13, 2011. Libya's civil war led to security lapses that have paved the way for African migrants to make often-deadly boat trips to Italy. (Francesco Malavolta / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A Libyan woman evacuated from Misrata weeps as she disembarks from the Turkish ship Ankara upon arrival at Benghazi port on April 21, 2011. (Marwan Naamani / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Egyptians try to board a bus as a Tunisian soldier tries to stop one of them at the Libya-Tunisia border in Ras Ajdir, Tunisia, on March 3, 2011. (Emilio Morenatti / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A rebel fighter, right, hugs a refugee fleeing unrest in Libya at the southern Libya-Tunisia border crossing of Dehiba on April 22, 2011. Thousands of people fled worsening violence in Libya's western mountains through the border crossing near the southern Tunisian town of Dehiba. (Zoubeir Souissi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Rohan Muhammed, right, waits in the car after her family cleared customs to enter Egypt on March 17, 2011, at the border in Sallum, Egypt. The family left their home in Benghazi, Libya, because of the fighting. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Members of the Italian coast guard help refugees from Libya arrive on the island of Lampedusa, Italy, in the early hours of May 8, 2011. Thousands risked their lives to make the crossing to the Italian island. At one point the number of migrants exceeded Lampedusa's local population of less than 6,000. (Francesco Malavolta / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Italian police and coast guard officers carry an injured refugee as he arrives on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa on April 6, 2011. More than 250 people, including women and children, were missing after a boat carrying migrants capsized off the Italian island that day. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Migrants from North Africa line up for food and water on March 29, 2011, on Lampedusa island, Italy. The small Italian island, only about 70 miles from the African coast, quickly became overwhelmed with immigrants as the Libya crisis deepened. (Xinhua via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Libyan children attend classes in a tent at a refugee camp in Dehiba in southern Tunisia on May 23, 2011. An estimated 20,000 Libyan refugees have found shelter in Dehiba, a border town of 5,000, some in camps, most in the homes of strangers. Aid groups believe about 40,000 in total have fled into Tunisia's Tataouine province. (Anis Mili / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Men reach for bread behind barbed wire while waiting to enter Tunisia after fleeing Libya on Feb. 28, 2011, in Ras Ajdir, Tunisia. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A Libyan refugee who fled the unrest in Libya stands outside her tent at a refugee camp in Dehiba, near the southern Libya-Tunisia border crossing of Wazin on May 9, 2011. Tunisia, looking to rebound economically after its own revolution, was coping with an increasing refugee crisis. (Zohra Bensemra / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. An ophthalmologist examines the eyes of a Libyan refugee in a makeshift hospital tent at a refugee camp in Tataouine, Tunisia, on June 3, 2011. After brief stays in camps, many of the Libyan refugees were welcomed into the homes of Tunisian families. (Anis Mili / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A Bangladeshi migrant worker who fled the conflict in Libya reaches to catch his passport as it is returned on March 14, 2011 at a transit camp near the Ras Ajdir, Tunisia, border crossing with Libya. Each Bangladeshi migrant worker who received his passport back moved to the next stage: a bus trip to the airport to be repatriated to his homeland. (Ciro Fusco / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Displaced people sleep on the floor in the international departure lounge of the Djerba, Tunisia, airport on March 17, 2011. As the fighting escalated in Libya, tens of thousands of guest workers including men, women and children from Egypt, Tunisia, Bangladesh, Sudan and other countries fled to the border of Tunisia. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A clown entertains people near a refugee camp for displaced people in Ras Ajdir, Tunisia, on March 20, 2011. (Emilio Morenatti / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Sudanese workers who fled Libya await news on their repatriation after crossing into Ras Ajdir, Tunisia, on March 22, 2011. (Emilio Morenatti / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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    The body of a drowned refugee floats near a capsized ship that originated from Libya. According to the United Nations refugee agency, the ship left Tripoli loaded with about 850 refugees, mostly from West Africa, Pakistan and Bangladesh, on May 28, 2011 and ran aground and sank on June 1. Only 578 people survived, one of the deadliest incidents in the Mediterranean this year. (Lindsay Mackenzie / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Ukrainian Navy sailors welcome refugees from Libya in Sevastopol, on April 11, 2011. The Ukrainian navy ship Konstantin Olshanskiy transported 113 refugees, including 85 Ukrainians, to safety. (Andrew Lubimov / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A passenger kisses the ground and prays after disembarking from the Ukrainian navy ship Konstantin Olshanskiy in Valletta, Malta, on April 5, 2011. The ship carried 193 workers of various nationalities and their families out of Libya. Among the workers were 22 Britons and 20 Americans, who were picked up from the Tripoli area. (Darrin Zammit Lupi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    Emilio Morenatti / AP
    Above: Slideshow (27) Latest refugee crisis: Thousands flee Libya
  2. Antoine Sanfuentes / NBC News
    Slideshow (9) Fighting for their youth

Video: Darfur refugees refuse to be broken


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