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From oppression to opportunity: Welcome for refugees makes a world of difference

  • Author: Steffi Kim
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published November 28, 2015

I was born and raised in East Germany during the Communist era, when one was to follow the "only right" ideology with one's whole being. My dad was not a follower of this doctrine. He built a huge antenna on our balcony with which we were able to watch news from West Germany, the capitalist enemy. When I became older he invited me to join him, but with the warning to not ever say anything about this to anyone. Possible consequences of this behavior were removal of children from their families, jail time, and public discussions about the family's divergence from the communist "truth." By that time I was also aware of the fact that only those who identified 100 percent with the communist ideology would ever be able to go to college or join professions.

Due to those circumstances, I grew very quiet and shy, I was so afraid I might say or do something that could be troublesome for my family. Even years later after the reunification of the two parts of Germany, the "melding" of East and West, my confusion still remained; I still did not know how to act or behave accordingly in the new societal system. The expectations had changed, but the awareness of how people from East Germany were seen as second-class citizens was troubling. Our way of talking, thinking and socializing was questioned again, leaving me quiet and reserved, and powerless.

Despite those issues, I decided to delve right into the new life. I moved to a city in West Germany and started a college degree program at a university. In order to support myself I took several jobs and through those I learned how people perceived me. The feedback I got from my coworkers was life changing. People realized that not every East German was exactly how they were portrayed in the media. They looked at me and explained that they were rather surprised that they liked the way I was and that they would have never thought that I was from East Germany, an "Ossi."

This very positive and supportive environment, even though at times judgmental, and the general openness of the people in this city gave me the courage to open myself up to become more trusting and expressive. It was a life-changing experience, from just trotting along with the flow in order to fit in and not being too visible, to being able to express myself and be heard. That experience of social empowerment is the reason I am who I am now. It gave me so much strength that I was able to overcome the old role I was playing to fit into society. It enabled me to embrace and engage in new opportunities.

While I was lucky enough to escape those detrimental conditions, many refugees fleeing dangerous and oppressive living situations are still seeking a new place to call home that offers security for their families. Many countries, such as Germany, Brazil, and Canada (even France!) have been supportive of the latest wave of refugees from Syria, while the United States is currently heading the opposite direction with 31 state governors objecting to the resettlement of Syrian refugees and calling for the closure of successful US Refugee Admission Programs. These quick reactions from our leaders, however, seem to be fueled by misinformation that is flavored with stereotypes, which combine to create unfounded fear.

Refugees cannot simply choose the country to which they are resettled, if they are resettled at all. If refugees are even considered for resettlement into the U.S., the resettlement process for any refugee, including Syrian refugees, consists of screening that lasts 18 to 24 months and involves rigorous background checks by the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees, the U.S. State Department, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Refugees accepted for resettlement in the United States are usually vulnerable people often fleeing persecution, such as displaced single mothers and children, religious minorities, and victims of torture. The United States has become a new and safe home for tens of thousands of refugees over the years, and our country has a long tradition of immigration and refugee resettlement that has made life livable, safe and prosperous for many families.

It is not easy to get into the United States as a refugee, let alone as a refugee with bad intentions. It is not a smart decision to invest in and depend on the refugee resettlement route as one's way of gaining entry into the United States. People with bad intentions against the United States have better odds of successfully getting into our borders through other means, such as simply coming in as a tourist from countries like France, Belgium and the United Kingdom, because passport holders from such countries don't need visas or prior "vetting" by the United States.

Having personally experienced the impact of both an oppressive and a nurturing environment, I know what it means to be empowered through a community that believes in you and offers you a variety of resources. I also know what it feels like and how it can impact a person if social support and a safe environment are missing and instead oppression and insecurity are experienced. I was lucky to be born into an oppressive regime that was losing power. It still is hard for me to imagine what my life would have been like under the communist regime.

In the case of refugees, people who are most in need, we can play a vital role in changing their lives today. Having the opportunity, what kind of environment would we want to provide? A welcoming, nurturing, empowering kind? Or the hostile, oppressive, and fearful kind? We also have to keep in mind that those actions or inactions will inevitably influence our own younger and future generations.

Steffi Kim is a doctoral student in the Clinical-Community Psychology program at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)

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