Remarks at the World Refugee Day Event

By:  John Kerry
Date: June 20, 2013
Location: Washington, DC

Thank you. Thank you very, very much. I really appreciate the opportunity to be here. I apologize for being a moment late. I just came from the Hill, where I was testifying on the subject of Syria, where we obviously have an enormous impact in terms of refugees. I appreciate your allowing me to sneak in and move the box and stand here and talk to you. (Laughter.)
I'm delighted to welcome our ambassadors here. Thank you all for joining us this morning. And it's a privilege for me to be here. And I want to thank our outstanding Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration, Anne Richard, who has been a tireless advocate on behalf of the world's most vulnerable people. And I think all of you know that the challenges that we're here to talk about today are monumental, they are humbling, and they remind us of the unbelievable global, moral responsibility that we have to try to deal with people who face some of the toughest circumstances on earth.

I thank the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres. I see you on the screen there. Thank you for being with us. Happy for the modern technology, which is bringing us together here. I gather you're in Jordan, and appreciate your participating from there. And he has, as all of you know, been absolutely relentless in his efforts to try to help us do a better job to respond. It's an endless job, and nothing more serious than what he is facing today, being in Jordan.

I also want to thank the members of Congress. I just -- they beg their apologies here, but they were going to come down here, many of them, to be supportive -- and they are -- but they're voting, in the middle of the vote. That's actually one of the ways I got rescued from my hearing. (Laughter.) So now I'm very much in favor of those votes, folks. (Laughter.)

And I want to thank Wilmot for sharing his story with everybody here today. We appreciate his service in the military and his work with veterans.

Today is just the 12th official World Refugee Day, but I'm proud to say that in United States of America, our country has had a tradition of welcoming the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free," and it runs deep in our roots. I think it's safe to say it's part of our DNA as Americans, and we're proud of that.

Roughly 150 years before the American Revolution took place and 400 years before the Statue of Liberty first stood up in New York Harbor to welcome people, a fellow by the name of John Winthrop came to this land as a Puritan refugee from England with a group of refugees on a sail vessel, the Arbella.

And he crossed the Atlantic. Before he arrived in Boston Harbor, he delivered a very well-known sermon, envisioning the colony they were going to create there as this "City Upon a Hill," words that have been well quoted now by President Kennedy initially and President Reagan subsequently. He challenged the congregation that came over with him to serve as a model of justice and tolerance because, as he said, "the eyes of all people are upon us."

Well, I would say to you today that they still are. The eyes of all people are upon us. And opening our docks and our doors to refugees has been part of the great tradition of our country. It defines us. It really is who we are. Most people came to this country at one point or another from another place.

And I think it's safe to say that as we look at the world today and we consider where the High Commissioner is today, this challenge is as great as ever. Nearly 1.6 million people are now refugees out of Syria, a very significant portion of them in Jordan, where the High Commissioner is now. He will tell you, as I have experienced in my trips to Jordan, the profound impact that these refugees have on a community when they come there.

Many of them are not in the camps; they're just in the general population and they seek employment, or they rent an apartment, 10 of them to the apartment, all contributing to the rent, which raises rents, which produces pressure on other people within the normal Jordanian course of life. That has an impact on Jordanian citizens; it has an impact on the politics.

In addition to that, they go to work or try to go to work. And because they're desperate to go to work, they work for less money. In working for less money, they lower wages, and that has a social impact on the rest of the community.

So there are profound impacts from refugees. And obviously we live in a world today where not all refugees are refugees as a consequence of revolution or war and violence. We have refugees because they can't find water. We have refugees because of climate change. We have refugees who are driven out by drought and the lack of food, who move accordingly because they want to be able to live.

And today we see refugees in so many new parts of the world. We see refugees in Mali, in the mountains of Burma, and in many other places. It's fair to say that as we gather here for this 12th occasion, the eyes of some 46 million displaced people around the world are upon us. And we need to be able to look back at them with the knowledge that we are doing everything that is possible to try to help.

The challenge is immense. We just put an additional huge amount of money into Syria. And I think it's safe to say that everybody comes to this table committed to try to do everything in our power to live up to our values and to meet the needs. The State Department, USAID, our partners in the U.S. Government, the United Nations, nonprofits around the world, faith-based groups, humanitarian organizations -- all of them try to come together in order to try to live up to our common values.

And we don't do this just because we're trying to keep faith with the past; it's because working to resolve this issue is critical to our future. And I think it's vital to our nation's strategic interest. It's also the right thing to do.

When the stakes are high, you need to up your game, and I'm proud to say that the United States is trying to do that. Today, I announced that we are nearly doubling our contributions this year to the UNHCR. We are giving to the High Commission on Refugees a $415 million commitment that brings our 2013 total to $890 million. And I'm proud to say to you that that makes the United States of America the largest single contributor in the world. We provide more aid to the UNHCR than any other country and more than the next six countries combined. Americans should be proud of that. (Applause.)

What does this provide? This funding provides clean water, provides shelter, provides medicine to families around the globe. It tries to provide them with the ability to be able to survive day to day, from Afghanistan, Ecuador, from Burma to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This funding will advance our efforts on behalf of those who simply cannot defend themselves, including the elderly and the disabled. It will help to continue all of the programs to protect women and girls from abuse and exploitation and to aid the victims of gender-based violence. And we make this investment because it makes a real difference in the lives of fellow human beings. I have seen this with my own eyes, and I think many of you here have seen it also.

The families of two of my predecessors, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, escaped Hitler and Stalin, and they landed on the shores of our county, like so many other American families centuries earlier, all of whom came here yearning and hoping for a brighter future.

Another one of our State Department family, Alex Konick, was born in Romania to parents who instilled in him a passion for geography, a fascination with other cultures. But the Romanian communist regime would not give his father a passport. And so, with nothing but the clothes on his back, Alex cut through a barbed-wire fence on the Yugoslav border and he made it to a refugee camp in Italy. And finally, later, on November 17th of 1982, he arrived in New York City.

Alex calls that day his "freedom birthday," and he celebrates it every single year. After graduating from Columbia University and getting married, he took the passion that he inherited for travel and geography and culture and he decided to serve his country right here in the State Department. Today he's proudly serving at the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, in what is today a much different region from the one that he escaped. That's the difference that we can make.

You can take another person, Gai Nyok, who is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, who escaped the war there, trekking 500 miles on foot to Ethiopia. He finally arrived at Kakuma, Kenya, a sprawling refugee camp that housed 100,000 refugees, but food and rations there were very meager, and conditions were inadequate. So when the United Nations came, Gai immediately -- when the United States came, he immediately signed up.

You fast-forward just a few years. Gai finished high school early, with a 4.0 GPA; he graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in economics and international relations. And I'm proud to say that today, Gai is one of our Pickering Fellows here at the State Department, on the path to becoming a diplomat in the Foreign Service.

Tomorrow his story and his photo will be featured on the State Department's blog and he is a prime example, like so many millions of others, of exactly why it is worth all of us standing up for the world's most vulnerable, fighting on behalf of refugees, people who are determined to work hard, to give back, to rebuild their lives and to become part of the fabric of this country or whatever country they can find asylum in, people who have started businesses and gone on to win prizes, recognition for literature, for science, for technology, and other great endeavors.

So my friends, as we gather here today, the eyes of all people are still on us. And thanks to the work of people like Anne and Antonio -- and so many of you -- I believe we have reason to be hopeful. Because of your commitment, our most sacred values and the United States hopes and aspirations still remain a beacon of hope for people all over the world. We have work yet to do, but we recognize that we do it as a land of second chances and as an example for what we can do to help people achieve that second opportunity.

Thank you for the privilege of being here with you today. Thank you. (Applause.)