Commentary: A challenge to all U.S. residents to learn the stories behind refugees’ struggles

Immigrants seeking asylum in U.S. assembled in Tijuana, Mexico
Immigrants wishing asylum to the U.S., gather around Mauricio, also an asylum-seeker from Venezuela, as he calls out the latest group numbers of immigrants who can proceed to U.S. Customs to ask for asylum in July 2018 at the San Ysidro border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Burbank school board member Armond Aghakhanian, who at the age of 13 found himself alone as a refugee, urges readers to consider the plight of those in the same situation today.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” — Emma Lazarus, as inscribed on the Statue of Liberty

Lately, there has been a lot of political rhetoric and division around the men, women and children seeking asylum in our country. These families have left everything behind, because they want the best possible future for their children and themselves. A future free from war, persecution and injustice. They come here seeking that which is taken for granted by so many of us: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

On Friday, July 12, I had the honor of joining, and speaking to, hundreds of Burbank families gathered in Johnny Carson Park for the Burbank National Lights for Liberty Vigil. The Lights for Liberty vigils brought together thousands of people from across the world to protest the inhumane conditions experienced by refugees currently seeking asylum in the United States. The event was very personal to me because as a former refugee myself, this hit close to home.

I too had to leave everything I knew and loved behind; my home, friends, family, school and community, at the age of 13. Alone. Eventually, I moved to Germany, spending time in refugee camps and detention centers where I was reunited with my family. We spent two years in a small village in Germany, leading to my migration to the U.S. on Nov. 23, 1987.


I believe that my personal experience with revolution, war, injustice and the harsh realities of both political and social discrimination made me a better person. Within all the chaos and uncertainty, I have seen the beauty of the human spirit. Like the unconditional love and friendship I received from three young African brothers I met at the refugee camp in Germany. They saw me crying as I waited for hours one Sunday morning, desperate for a phone call from my parents. Ironically, they had just lost their parents, murdered in front of their eyes, and were struggling with the physical handicaps they had received at the hands of a machete during their country’s ongoing civil war. Despite all the pain and suffering they had been through, they were still able to selflessly embrace me, a fellow refugee.

Today, I continue to receive love and support from my Burbank community. This is what keeps me going every day. Serving our children, families, schools and community is the least I can do to give back to a country and community that has given me so much.

When you see me now, you see a successful member of the community, a member of the school board, a doctor of education, a husband and a father. But I am also the men, women and children crowded together in cages and camps, punished for seeking something upon which our country is built — freedom. I challenge you to learn their stories, as you have learned mine, and to lift high the lamp which has always guided the tired and the poor, yearning to breathe free.

The writer is a member of the Burbank Unified School District Board of Education.


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