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Op-Ed: The Refugee Act: John Kerry: More Reason to Celebrate Ted Kennedy's Legacy


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My colleague of twenty five years, Ted Kennedy, left an enormous imprint on the Senate and on our country. Today we quietly mark the 30th anniversary of one of his most visionary legislative accomplishments.

The Refugee Act of 1980 paved the way for what is now the most robust and effective refugee program in the world. Thirty years later, we can celebrate the almost three million refugees we have welcomed into our land and our lives.

Many fled unspeakable horror and persecution. All learned firsthand our country's generous spirit of welcome. The "lost boy" from southern Sudan whose village was destroyed in civil war. The young man unlucky enough to be born an ethnic Rohingya in Burma, despised by his own government and denied even the basic identity papers that connote official personhood. The mother of three whose husband was killed by insurgents in return for his service to American troops in Iraq. The American people have welcomed all of them -- and many more.

All were lucky to make it out of their countries alive. But no refugees anywhere in the world face an easy path in a new land. Many come with painful memories of violence, and others with fears of unspeakable horrors narrowly escaped. Others wake up each day and wonder what their lives will become. Too often, they exchange one set of dangerous conditions for overcrowded, unsanitary, and even violent camps. Many of our family histories contain similar stories, and we should all remember the persistence, compassion and good fortune that allowed the next chapters to be written on our shores.

In fact, these refugees, many of whom arrive having lost everything, become some of the most resilient, entrepreneurial and devoted citizens we have. The ranks of refugees who succeeded in America include former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, U.S. Olympian Lopez Lomong, the late Congressman Tom Lantos and, of course, Albert Einstein. The difference between these individuals, and so many sitting in refugee camps, is that a new country and its people took a chance on them.

Today, as our troops come home, we must not lose sight of those Iraqis who also remain far from home. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis still live in neighboring countries like Syria and Jordan. As a recent International Rescue Committee report documented, these refugees face insecure and chaotic conditions.

Many of these refugees are young people whose lives and identities are still being shaped. According to the IRC, 40% of Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan are adolescents, and 60% are under the age of 25. Most cannot work, and they will soon become a lost generation with no education, no trade, and no prospects. Despite the generosity of the host governments to allow these refugees to remain, far too many live in a world of desperate alienation in which their daily survival is a gamble.

The Government of Iraq must find long-term solutions for its citizens, and the thousands more who are displaced internally inside Iraq. This is the top priority. But, we must not forget the special responsibility we as Americans hold to these people.

It is rightly a point of pride that the American people have welcomed these battered and brave souls. Despite our own trying times, on this day, we should again remember that it is the unique spirit of America that reminds us that when we take in the tired, hungry and poor, we are reconnecting with the best of our history, the source of our strength, and the better angels of our nature.

On the shores of Ellis Island, our nation became what it is today: powerful, spirited, strong and always in search of new frontiers. Thirty years after the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act, it is Ted Kennedy's legacy and America's, too.

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