8-Year-Old Helps Obama Illustrate Refugee Plight

refugeePresident Barack Obama made a visit to a refugee center during his visit to Malaysia on Saturday, Nov. 21. The center in Kuala Lumpur houses children, many of whom are Muslim Rohingyas who fled persecution in Myanmar and traffickers, and hope to be resettled in the U.S. President Obama introduced one 8-year-old girl and six others as “the face of people all around the world who look to the United States as a beacon of hope” to illustrate their plight and what is at stake in the anti-refugee rhetoric that has arisen in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks.

While the overwhelming number of Syrian refugees have attracted the most attention in recent years, there are others in refugee centers around the world. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the unidentified young girl, whom the president made a public face of an international crisis, is one of 59.5 million people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes worldwide, almost 20 million of whom are now refugees in another country. A staggering 42,500 people per day, on average, left their homes this year.

The girl got separated from her family as they fled Myanmar and she was preyed on by traffickers before the U.N. helped her reach the resettlement center in Malaysia. Now, on her way to the U.S. she is symbolically an advocate on behalf of others seeking new homes.

“American leadership is us caring about people who have been forgotten, or who have been discriminated against, or who’ve been tortured, or who’ve been subject to unspeakable violence or who’ve been separated from families at very young ages,” Obama said. “That’s when we’re the shining light on the hill. Not when we respond on the basis of fear.”

Obama’s remarks were a rebuke of the political debate and anti immigrant sentiments that have escalated in the past week in the U.S. That includes House-passed legislation seeking to add more barriers to overcome before admitting more refugees from Syria. During the visit to Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country, the President also proclaimed that Islamic extremists would find no safe haven.

During their joint appearance, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak had planned to talk about the achievements of the 10-countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which he is currently chairs. “But the events of recent days and weeks have cast a shadow over us all,” he said as he opened the ASEAN summit against the backdrop of Paris, the bombing of a Russian jet in Egypt, the attack the day before on a Mali hotel and other terrorist acts the past couple of weeks. “Be assured that we stand with you against this new evil that blasphemes against the name of Islam. The perpetrators … do not represent any race, religion or creed. They are terrorists and should be confronted as such, with the full force of the law,” Najib added.

The 8-year-old and the other children Obama talked with and hugged help illustrate the refugee plight in other parts of the world. Malaysia is enmeshed in another migrant crisis that started before the flood of migrants fled from the Syrian civil war. There are over 150,000 refugees in Malaysia, most of whom came from Myanmar — including the persecuted Rohingya — but also arrived from Sri Lanka, Somalia, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria.

Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss

Whitehouse.gov: Joint Statement on the ASEAN-U.S. Strategic Partnership
UNHCR: Facts and Figures about Refugees
Washington Post: In Asia, Obama takes softer tone on human rights, corruption
Los Angeles Times: At refugee center in Malaysia, Obama calls on U.S. to welcome the ‘forgotten’
Minneapolis Star Tribune: Muslim-majority Malaysia blasts Islamic State as evil, Obama vows no safe haven for killers

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