To be honest, no one chooses to be a refugee.

Nobody wakes up one morning and decides to leave everything familiar behind, including their loved ones, to live in limbo for years, without valid papers, hoping a country would offer to resettle them. I did not.

Fresh out of college, I was planning to return to Iran, where I was born, to reunite with my family when the 1979 Islamic Revolution, followed by the war with neighboring Iraq, caused turmoil there. These events made me a stateless person, with no country to which I could return.

Years earlier, I had gone to India, to study engineering; I was innocent of the world’s cruelty and life was mostly peaceful and good. Once the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in India, provided me with the refugee status, I applied for admission to the United States, as a refugee. Without a sponsor or a relative in America, I was sent to Portland for resettlement.

When I got to Portland, my new “home,” it felt like a sweet dream. To my tired eyes, the electric light seemed brighter and the sky looked bluer. Kind strangers offered housing, rides, and assistance to find a job. With hope, and faith in America, tucked away in my heart, where no personal doubt, or hostile looks could reach and touch, I started to build a new life. Like many others, I believed then, and still do, that America’s strength has been its willingness to add more chairs to the proverbial table.

My story, far from being unique, represents a reality in a world that is broken and re-broken now and again. The world is a dangerous place for the innocent civilians, including women and children. Today, there are some 80 million refugees, displaced internally or pushed out of their countries of birth. According to UNHCR “every minute 20 people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution or terror.”


Calamities, such as the one unfolding in Afghanistan now, after its sudden fall to the Taliban, show how chaotic our world is. Refugees are the byproduct of wars. It’d help if those against helping refugees were to oppose invasions and our government’s support for ruthless dictators, for the sake of access to cheap energy and national security.

Refugees, by their mere presence, in our communities, even when invisible to some, tell the stories of courage and human resilience. They also remind us of the cruelty of human beings at times of conflict and yet the kindness and compassion of strangers in receiving and helping them to feel safe and a chance to start new lives.

Across cities in the U.S. and in Maine, refugees, asylum seekers, migrant workers and immigrants are building, repairing, healing, teaching, growing food, creating art and so on. They are adding to the richness of the symphony we call America. And that is the central plot of the American story, for unless you come from a Native American tribe, you are either an immigrant, or were stolen in Africa and brought to America, as a slave.

In the weeks to come, as a former refugee, I will be unfurling the welcome mat and keeping open the same door, that let me and others before me in, for the expected Afghan refugees, many of whom had risked their lives helping Americans fighting in Afghanistan. Here at the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, in partnership with other nonprofits and others, we will offer a helping hand by teaching the Afghan refugees English remotely and supporting them to enter the workforce, when they are ready. As proper hosts, that’s the least we could do: small acts of love done for the sake of repairing our broken world.

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