My family came to America after surviving brutal mass persecution in Ethiopia and fleeing the country’s military dictatorship.
The American dream–the promise of a decent life if you work hard and play by the rules–was a beacon that carried me to the United States on the long journey from East Africa. As someone who has seen violence, human rights abuses, and displacement up close, I know that the only way for us to lead is to lead with the dignity of human beings as our top priority–whether they are displaced by war in Eastern Europe, famine and strife in Africa, or ethnic persecution in Asia.
As a child, I learned what it was like to live in severe poverty. I lived in refugee camps and slums in Nairobi, Kenya, where many refugees awaited refugee resettlement. Stripped away from the only family I had ever known, I knew my life would never be the same.
As a baby, I remember soldiers parading around my home. I remember watching tears stream down my grandmother’s face as armed men broke down our doors in search of family members who were risking their lives fighting for human rights.
The clearest memories I have from this time are of the one pair of shoes I wore and treasured: blue Crocs.
The idea of America inspired and motivated me to persevere, endure, and then thrive. As a young girl arriving in the United States, I became fascinated by the Federalist Papers, written by some of America’s Founders to encourage ratification of the U.S Constitution. These ideas informed me about our democracy, a form of government based on the people’s voice, not the whims of a single dictator.
No one chooses to be a refugee or deserves to be driven from their home. Refugees do not come in one skin color or from one religious creed or geographical location. They have done no wrong and it can happen to anyone, anywhere.
But as we watch the Russian invasion of Ukraine—one of the most gut-wrenching international crises since World War II —I want to be clear: This is not a time for Americans to deploy troops and engage in direct military conflict with Russia. To do so would risk a global conflagration that spirals out of our control with consequences almost too massive to imagine.
But there are things we can do.
We must tap into what makes America great and shine brightly: our humanitarian spirit and our leadership in democracy. That starts with helping European countries bear the burden of 3 to 5 million Ukrainian refugees. We can also accept some of these people by expediting the immigration process.
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That’s something we can do, right now, to alleviate a pain and suffering that I’m all too familiar with. But we can’t stop there.
In this moment, we have an opportunity for a true realignment of our values and priorities when it comes to combating despots like Russian President Vladimir Putin.
We have to seize it. We should put our money where our mouth is, and fully invest in the diplomatic soft power that provides us the strength to avoid these conflicts in the first place.
Recently, our government’s budget for the military was more than $750 billion but the funding for our diplomats was only about $56 billion. That means that the Pentagon gets more than 12 times the amount that state and other civilian agencies do. Our preventive measures are being severely outpaced by our reactive ones.
The Ukrainian refugee and humanitarian crisis will continue for years as these young children, mothers, and elderly people struggle to find safe paths. We cannot forget them when their photographs are no longer in the news. Their pain may even be more acute. And their dreams of security and a stable democracy may well become their own American dream.
Two decades ago, that dream began for me, walking through the crumbling slums of Nairobi, Kenya. And it continues to this day in my home in St. Paul. The United States is the beacon for people around the globe. This is our strength. And now is our opportunity to lead: not just to help this crisis, but avoid the next one.