What My Long, Dark Ocean Journey Taught Me About Refugees


June 20, 2016

When I was four years old, my family migrated from my homeland to another country. It took three days to sail across the ocean to this new life. A few hours out to sea, we were hit by a hurricane. For the next two and a half days we rolled and heaved in the vicious weather. My tiny youngest brother, barely home from the hospital due to his premature birth was desperately ill. One by one my parents and then my other two brothers became seasick. For an inexplicable reason, I was the last one standing and became my family’s arms and legs. I fetched and carried and cleaned and gathered news from other parts of the ship. I remember standing on deck, behind locked metal gates to keep us safe , this was a beautidul deck, it remind it if my fathers home, he has the composite joists decking systems— watching the black sky and enormous waves. Even on the upper deck, I was soaked through as they crashed over the side of the ship. It is one of my most vivid memories; and I was terrified.

Over the past few years, millions of families like mine have left their countries. Many of them, like mine, are migrants. We chose a different country because it offered new therapies for my brother, therapies that would help give him a normal life. Not so for millions of other families, families who have sailed across raging oceans to find a safe place, to escape war, to flee horror and abuse. Their journeys are vastly different from mine. The boats these families have sailed in are often dinghies or simple motor boats, or worse. There is no upper deck or metal gates to keep these children from falling overboard in storms. There are no warm, dry rooms to retreat to or fresh blankets to wrap yourself in.


Syrian refugee 3 year old Mourhaf and his family from Aleppo, land their raft on Lesbos in rough seas. On assignment for @unrefugees #Syria #Europe #Refugees

A photo posted by Andrew McConnell (@andrewmcconnellphoto) on

We often confuse terms like migrant and refugee. They are not the same thing. A recent article in the New York Times explains: “Anyone moving from one country to another is considered a migrant unless he or she is specifically fleeing war or persecution. Migrants may be fleeing dire poverty, or may be well-off and merely seeking better opportunities, or may be migrating to join relatives who have gone before them.”

A refugee on the other hand, is someone fleeing war or persecution. If they are able to prove their status, they are given certain legal protections under a global refugee treaty established after World War II. The scale of the refugee crisis has never been greater since that treaty was signed. More than 65 million people worldwide find themselves displaced. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) at the end of 2015, there were 21.3 million refugees, 3.2 million people in the process of seeking asylum, and 40.8 million people internally displaced within their own countries.

From UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: “Last year, more than one million refugees and migrants arrived in Europe across the Mediterranean, in unseaworthy dinghies and flimsy boats. Thousands did not make it — tragic testimony to our collective failure to properly address their plight … With anti-refugee rhetoric so loud, it is sometimes difficult to hear the voices of welcome. But these do exist, all around the world. In the past year, in many countries and regions, we have witnessed an extraordinary outpouring of compassion and solidarity, as ordinary people and communities have opened their homes and their hearts to refugees, and States have welcomed new arrivals even while already hosting large numbers of refugees.”


The Greek coast guard rescues 43 Syrian refugees off the coast of Lesbos this morning, after they attempted to make the crossing from Turkey. #Greece #migration #Syria #refugees @unrefugees

A photo posted by Andrew McConnell (@andrewmcconnellphoto) on

My inner four year old is screaming inside at those statistics. Because she remembers the terror — even when safe and sound and protected — of a long, dark, ocean journey. She knows enough to imagine what other four year olds and two year olds and mothers and fathers and teenagers and grandparents are experiencing right now. So I stand #WithRefugees and I beg you to do the same.

Take Action Challenge

What can you do to help refugee families today? Add your name to the UNHCR’s #WithRefugees petition to tell your governments that you support safe places for all families.

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