When President Barack Obama first announced his candidacy for president, he said: “I am running in this race because of what Dr. Martin Luther King called ‘the fierce urgency of now.’ Because I believe that there’s such a thing as being too late. And that hour is almost upon us.” Like Dr. King, our president was calling on America to make real the promises of our democracy.
That fierce urgency of now is here for thousands of refugee children from Central America. I know many of these kids’ stories because it is my story too.
In 1982, after too many friends and family had been jailed, tortured or killed by a brutal military government, my family knew my best chance of surviving into adulthood was to flee my home in Ethiopia. I did not want to leave. My parents did not want me to leave. We knew I would be risking my life to journey to Sudan to seek asylum. We also all knew I was likely to lose my life if I remained at home.
I was barely 13 years old when I, along with four of my childhood friends, set out on a brutal journey across the desert to Sudan. We used money we had earned doing odd jobs, sold any valuables we had and collected donations from family and friends to hire a peasant to help us reach Sudan. We were quickly robbed and abandoned by the peasant we hired. We then roamed hundreds of miles, lost. We grew ill and hungry, and we were exploited by farmers who offered us work along the way.
When we finally arrived at Sudan’s border, I weighed only 67 pounds — at 5 feet 10 inches. Although I would eventually recover, I never grew any taller than I was when I arrived in Sudan.
Upon arriving in Sudan, I was sick and starving and still had to adapt to a different language and culture. I got help from the Sudanese government and international nongovernmental organizations.
I had to go through many screenings and tests to prove my life was in danger and to get refugee status. Though I was relieved to be safe and I did get to the United States, all I really wanted was my family and my home. After I left Ethiopia, I never saw my father again. I never got to go through our house and collect photos or attend his funeral and honor his life. I could only imagine what he would tell me as I strove to become the kind of man I think he would have wanted me to be.
When my older brother, whom I admired and adored, was killed, I didn’t find out about it or know where he was buried for many years. I didn’t get to be with my nephew when he was born, and I didn’t know the whereabouts of my mother for nearly a decade.
But because I received asylum, I now get to live my version of the American dream. Because my friends and I received due process, we got a chance to escape the violence, political upheaval, environmental crisis and famine.
Like many new immigrants, I worked hard in high school, college and graduate school to better myself. I was the first person of color to head the California Young Democrats. One of my happiest moments was being accepted as a working-class American, when I landed my first union job as a Teamster at UPS. And now, as the first African-American man elected as an officer of the national AFL-CIO, I work for more than 12 million working Americans.
As a former child refugee, I cannot comprehend our government turning away children from any country arriving at our border without giving them basic due process.
As Americans, we must respond with speed and flexibility to address the individual problems presented by Central American children. There must be clear guidelines for screening arrivals and processing resettlement claims for at-risk refugees.
Every day when I look in the mirror, I see the faces of my childhood friends who didn’t live to adulthood. And I see the faces of Central American children pressed against bus windows as they are greeted with tomatoes, rocks and profanity.
If, in 1982, instead of being taken to a refugee camp where I was given due process by Sudan and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, I had been turned around at the border and sent back to Ethiopia, I would not be alive to write this today.
Many Central American refugees arriving at our border need urgent resettlement action, just as I did when I left my home country. Their cases need to be addressed. They must not be casually turned back or left in detention centers to languish. I know because I’ve been in their shoes.
Tefere Gebre is executive vice president of the AFL-CIO.