When I was growing up, refugees and conflicts happening in far-away places were never really things that I thought much about – nor, needless to say – identified much with. To me, refugees were just foreign people on TV, with vastly different cultures living a reality that had nothing to do with me. That’s a terrible and unfeeling thing to say, but it’s the truth; I felt no connection. Despite that early and poisonous Fox News-informed sentiment (thanks family), my thoughts about refugees and the injustices they endure fundamentally changed as I grew older, and were given new meaning and purpose as a direct result of my fellowship.
My parents were refugees – with me being Cuban-American and raised in Miami – but my former immigrant vs. refugee views were shattered during my teen years as my friends and I came face-to-face with migrants fleeing numerous humanitarian crises every day. Watching Univsion or Telemundo at night with my abuela, I’d see journalists report on the ground as civil war raged between the government and the FARC in Columbia, how cartel infighting and unabated crime were ripping Mexico apart, and how gang-related extortion, prostitution and killings in Central America by La Mara Salvatrucha (MS13 in the US) were making life for the average person in those countries unlivable. My friend Mariano almost died of dehydration when he crossed through the Mexican desert, on foot, to get to Texas, while my adopted aunt Mayra overstayed her tourist visa in order to work in the US so she could send money to her kids in Nicaragua. Since the time I was born in 1995 to now, Miami has basically become a safe haven for all undocumented immigrants, being a place where the natives already speak their language and share in their values and culture. The people I know personally who came illegally to the US all call America “la tierra escojida por dios,” which literally means God’s chosen country.
These things radically changed me. Seeing the suffering of my brethren up-close and personal forced me to come to grips with the fact that the US doesn’t treat all migrant groups equally. The story of my people’s diaspora would have been completely different if Cubans at the time weren’t mostly fair-skinned, green-eyed and educated. Coming from a culture that reveres the US as an infallible beacon of hope, it still crushes me to say that. I realized that the reality falls short of what our grandparents and parents told themselves over and over again while working in factories, boiler rooms and gas stations. “If you work like a slave, and keep your head down, this country will provide.” That statement proved itself to be true one million times over, but it doesn’t matter, because we were the chosen few. The rest of our kin were – and still are – relegated to live and die in chaos. This is when I became an activist.
In light of these mind-blowingly transformative life experiences, I thought it was pretty freaking ironic when I learned that the Karel Fellowship would be pairing me with Amnesty International USA, one of the oldest and most respected human rights organizations. “I could finally work at a place that makes a hugely impactful difference in the world!” I thought. My already seizing excitement doubled when I learned that Amnesty International’s primary missions are to fight for the freedoms of prisoners of conscience, quell the brutality of dictatorships and advocate internationally on the behalf of displaced peoples and refugees everywhere! I had the privilege to work with a team of people that dedicated themselves night and day to fighting on the benevolent side of the Syrian refugee crisis. We sent out op-eds, news releases, conducted social media campaigns, did media outreach, pitched celebrities and even trended on Twitter! This summer was an invaluable exercise in persuasive communications training for me, and gave me my first real exposure to professional life and high-level responsibility at work.
Professional development aside, working at Amnesty gave me the chance to directly impact the Syrian refugee crisis. Every project I did as a media fellow on the communications team is going to be used later this year. My work with celebrities, publicists and Washington influencers will all be part of campaigns to lobby congress to let 10,000 more Syrians into the country, in order to grant them asylum. Amnesty’s staff put me at the forefront of the struggle, and I saw a face of the conflict that the public doesn’t want to see; children washing up dead on Greek beaches, women being brutalized and disfigured for sport and civilian men being executed by the thousands. I accomplished things on behalf of refugees that I never would have been able to do alone, and realized an unfulfilled dream to help people, like my family, who lost their homeland. The Karel Fellowship made me completely reevaluate my family’s history in America, helped me examine the plight of current refugees from a different lens and put me in an incredible position to study the intricacies of how our society needs to change on this issue, from the very people instigating that change. I now have the knowledge and expertise to continue that fight by myself, wherever I go, and will do so as long as people in need have no one to fight for them.