As the Russian invasion of Ukraine intensifies, we can surely expect refugees from the Eastern European country to arrive in Rhode Island, along with the refugees from other countries who resettle here each year. When we look back at this moment, 10 years from now, will we be satisfied that we did all we could to help them?
As founder of Rhode Island’s Refugee Dream Center — the state’s premier agency for assisting refugees and asylum seekers after resettlement — I have met countless people who fled for their lives from countries like Syria, Iraq and Rwanda. While the cultures of these countries, and the pretexts for the flight of thousands of refugees, were different, what these nations have in common is being subjected to a ruler without a moral compass. Men who would stop at nothing to achieve their goals of personal wealth accumulation and preservation of their dominion. Men who were willing to inflict genocide to get what they wanted. This is what the people of Ukraine are experiencing now, as Russia attacks their country.
Our world is orders of magnitude smaller than it was a generation ago. We are now connected to people around the globe by commerce as well as shared values — connections made possible by technological innovations in communication, travel and finance. We also share tragedy through those same channels; right now, most people with a computer or smartphone are witnessing, feeling, and sharing the pain, anguish and anxiety of the Ukrainian people.
And, just maybe, there is some good that can come from that.
As this avoidable human tragedy unfolds before our eyes, in real-time, we have an opportunity to respond, and to make a difference in the lives of millions of people around the world, and hundreds of them right here in Rhode Island.
This year, at least 300 to 400 refugees from Afghanistan, Congo, Haiti, and elsewhere will resettle in Rhode Island. Some estimates say there could be as many as 1,000. And, I anticipate that we will welcome Ukrainians as well. These people will come to us with virtually nothing but their lives — little money, no car, few material possessions, and no connections, language skills or direct exposure to American culture.
Fourteen years ago, I was one of these people. I came from The Gambia — the smallest country in mainland Africa — to the smallest state in the US. I cherished my birth-country. But I cherished my life more.
After speaking out against our crazy dictator, I was tortured. When I dared to speak out again, against the injustices I witnessed, I was subjected to a nationwide manhunt, and had I been caught I am certain I would have been murdered. By the grace of God, luck, and the kindness and compassion of staff in the US Foreign Service, I was rescued. I was granted asylum in the US, my new home, which I have grown to love, and which I am committed to protecting and improving.
I will never forget the welcome I received from Little Rhody. The many blessings I was the recipient of. The help, opportunities and friendships that were provided to me have changed my life and have been an inspiration to me.
So much about this troubling time is beyond our control. But what we can control is much more valuable: our humanity, our kindness.
When I look back on this moment in time, 10 years from now, I hope that I can say my country did everything possible, within reason, to end human suffering in Ukraine and restore freedom in that country. One thing I am sure of, however, is that I will have no regrets about the way I treated people in need during this tumultuous period. I will continue to build capacity among Rhode Island’s working class communities, and the organizations that serve them. Through my organization I will continue to offer a hand up to families in need, no matter their place of origin, and develop and advocate for policies that improve the quality of life for all Rhode Islanders.
Let us focus on preserving our fragile democracy by staying vocal. Vote for candidates that share your values. Speak up against injustice. Treat people with kindness. We all have an important role to play in making our country, and world, a better and more compassionate place. Let us pray for Ukraine and Ukrainians, but let us also be sure to do our part for newcomers to our state — whether they are from the Ukraine, Afghanistan, Haiti, or anywhere else.
Dr. Omar Bah is a psychologist specializing in trauma and global mental health, the founder of the Refugee Center in Providence, and a candidate for the state’s 2nd Congressional District.