18 June 2009, Washington DC, USA
We're here today to talk about millions of desperate families – families so cut-off from civilization that they don't even know that a day like this exists on their behalf. Millions. And numbers can illuminate but they can also obscure. So I am here today to say that refugees are not numbers. They’re not even just refugees. They are mothers and daughters and fathers and sons – they are farmers, teachers, doctors, engineers, they are individuals all. And most of all they are survivors – each one with a remarkable story that tells of resilience in the face of great loss. They are the most impressive people I have ever met and they are also some of the world's most vulnerable. Stripped of home and country, refugees are buffeted from every ill wind that blows across this planet.
I remember meeting a pregnant Afghani woman in a completely abandoned camp in Pakistan. She couldn't travel when everyone else was relocated because she was too late in her pregnancy. She was alone with her two children and another woman. There was nothing for miles around the camp – not a single tree, no other people in sight. So when they asked me to come in for tea I said I didn't feel it necessary. But being Afghans, they take pride in how they treat their guests so they insisted and they guided me into a small dirt house with no roof to keep out the scorching heat, and they dusted off the two old mats that they ate, slept and prayed on. And we sat and we talked and they were just the loveliest women. And then with a few twigs and a single tin cup of water, they made the last of their tea and insisted on me to enjoy it.
Since before the parable of the Widow’s Mite it has been known that those who have the least will give the most. Most refugee families will offer you the only food they have and pretend they're not hungry. And the generosity of the poor applies not only to refugees. We should never forget that more than 80% of refugees are hosted and have been for years and years in the poorest developing countries.
Pakistan, a country now facing a crisis with over two million of its own people despised is still hosting 1.7 million Afghans and has hosted millions of Afghan families for nearly thirty years. I remember before we said good-bye to the pregnant lady she pointed to a young boy. He had a dusty face, the brightest green eyes I have ever seen but such a sad look but she explained that he's always asking for more food. And it hurts her to say that they have nothing. And she asked if we would consider taking him, would we take her sons so he could eat. And she said it with tears in her eyes with such a desperation. A desperation unimaginable to every parent in this room. A few weeks later, a war in Afghanistan began and heavy fighting started right where they were. I've been back to that region three times and I look for them every time.
The threat of climate change, the competition for resources, and ever growing global inequality has created deepening intractable conflicts. Whether it be Darfur, Myanmar, or Swat Valley or some as yet unknown crisis. Mass migrations will be a feature of our future, and we must adjust to this living reality. And again I would urge you to look beyond the simple number and look instead at the individual.
I remember in Tanzania, I met a child in a tent. He sat on the dusty floor; he's been shot on the back and left paralyzed. And he crawled forward to shake my hand, he was no more than fifteen. He had bog pretty eyes, big wide sparkling smile, and after he'd been to, he's full of laughter and love. Later that night I asked whether he'd not been taken to a hospital or at least given a wheelchair and I was told that the boy's entire family had been killed so there was no one to look after him. And he'd not been accepted for asylum in a third. And the aid worker said they’d spent the money they could but they didn't have any more. And I thought about him all night and I wondered what I should do. And then I remembered the next thing I walked through the camp and I saw more victims of war. I saw small children full of hunger and fear, crying mothers, wounded fathers, I saw a sea of humanity - all desperate, all deserving.
There are hundreds of thousands in that camp and there are millions around the world. And at that time I felt hopeless and overwhelmed by the realization of the magnitude of the problem. But the later on that trip, I met an eight year old girl who had seen her family killed in front of her and she grabbed her baby brother and she ran into the jungle and survived, terrified an alone for two weeks. She managed to find bananas and feed herself and her brother. And when I met her she didn’t talk, she just walked back and forth and I kept trying to tell her how brave we thought she was. She just stared at the window. And a year later I came back to that same camp and i saw her again. She was still very shy but she was beginning to speak and she was sweet and polite but she still didn't care about  me or visitors she just wanted to know how her brother was. He was with the doctors and she was just checking to make sure everything's gonna be okay. She was his mother now. That little girl had a depth and a strength that I will never know. And on that trip, and many that followed I came to know refugees as not only as the most vulnerable people on earth but as the most resilient.
As an American I know the strength that diversity has given my country. A country built by what now some would dismiss as asylum seekers or economic migrants. And I believe we must persuade the world that refugees must now be simply viewed as a burden. They are survivors. And they can bring those qualities to the service of their communities and the countries that shelter them.
If you see the individual, you see the education and knowledge the refugees pass on to their children because often it is all they have to pass on. It is why it's so important that we give them education. If you see the individual, you see the contribution that can be made by refugees to their host countries and how important they will be to their own land when eventually they return.
In the last nine years I have made many visits to the field with UNFCR. I do it to raise awareness for the plight of refugees but I also do it for me. The refugees I have met and spent time with have profoundly changed my life. The eight-year-old girl who saved her brother taught me what it is to be brave. The pregnant woman in Pakistan taught me what it is to be a mother. And the paralyzed boy who had been shot in the back with his big smile showed me the strength of an unbreakable spirit. So today, on world refugee day, I thank them for letting me into their lives. And I thank you for coming.
Related: Angelina Jolie's speech in Turkey for World Refugee Day 2015, is also on Speakola.