Life as a Refugee

By: Cristina Norland
Edited by: Maia Lamdany

I would like to share with you a portion of a speech by former refugee and sixth President of Latvia, also the first female President of Latvia, Vaira Vike-Freiberga. The following was the opening statement at the December 2001 United Nations meeting of states party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Vaira Vike-Freiberga paints a vivid picture of what it is like to live life as a refugee.

” No one leaves their home willingly or gladly. When people leave en masse the place of their birth, the place where they live it means there is something very deeply wrong with the circumstances in that country and we should never take lightly these flights of refugees fleeing across borders. They are a sign, they are a symptom, they are proof that something is very wrong somewhere on the international scene. When the moment comes to leave your home, it is a painful moment.

…to just walk out of their homes with what they could carry in their two hands, walk off into the unknown, but with a hope of freedom possibly awaiting them with a hope of saving their lives and with a choice at least that was theirs to make little as it was at the time. It can be a costly choice.

…but they are also human beings, they also suffer, they also have their hopes, their dreams and their aspirations. Most of all they dream of a normal life.

It is a painful condition not to know where you are going to lay your head, to look at the lights shining in distant windows, to think of people living their normal lives, sleeping in their own beds, eating at their own table, living under their own roofs. And later when you come to refugee camps and some people spend decades and much of their lives in refugee camps, you are outside of space and of time, you have no roots you have no past, you don’t know whether you have a future, you have no rights, you have no voice, you have nowhere to participate in, you are not a citizen, you have no papers, sometimes you haven’t even got your name and you have to pinch yourself to reassure yourself that yes I am alive, I am me, I am a human being, I am a person. Do I count in this world, I don’t know, I’ll wait until tomorrow. ”

refugeesArtist: Tomer Hanuk

” Are they human beings, like you and I and everybody else who is a citizen of a country and who has rights, or do they stand outside of space and time and rights. What are they? Who are they? It is up to bodies such as this to make the decision. It is up to the governments sitting here represented by you ladies and gentlemen holding high offices in your countries. Their fate lies in your hands. They are out there in the tents, by the roadsides, starving, freezing, waiting, hoping for someone to extend a helping hand. They are out there waiting on your decisions, on your actions, on your creativity, on your ability to find a way of extending that helpful hand which can make the difference between life and death, between having a future and having none. Between being a human being with dignity or being less than the beasts of the field, trodden under into the dust of this world. I entreat you ladies and gentlemen when you think about the problems of refugees, think of them not in the abstract think of them not in the bureaucratic language of decisions and declarations, and priorities in a sense that you normally think of things. I entreat you think of the human beings who are touched by your decisions, think of the lives who wait on your help.

I thank here all those who throughout the decades of my life have extended a helpful hand to their fellow man, near or far, with large help or small. Big interventions and projects, small gifts from very ordinary people, very plain people, used clothes from their homes and from their backs, thank you to all of you, I have worn those clothes, I have survived because somebody sent a parcel when we were starving, thank you to all of those who have helped in the past and who are helping today… “

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