The young woman was never identified, even though the president of the United States was about to make her the public face of an international crisis.
At 8 years old she fled Myanmar and, separated from her family, became a victim of trafficking before the United Nations helped her resettle in Malaysia. Now, she advocates on behalf of others facing a similar plight, a role she played symbolically here Saturday as President Obama introduced her and six others who would soon be resettling in the U.S. as “the face of people all around the world who look to the United States as a beacon of hope.”
“American leadership is us caring about people who have been forgotten, or who have been discriminated against, or who’ve been tortured, or who’ve been subject to unspeakable violence or who’ve been separated from families at very young ages,” Obama said. “That’s when we’re the shining light on the hill. Not when we respond on the basis of fear.”
Obama’s remarks, an implicit rebuke of the debate roiling back home over whether to allow Syrian refugees to settle in the U.S., came during his visit to a center here that assists refugees who have fled to Malaysia.
This is not just something we do out of charity ... these immigrant populations are part of what continues to renew America.
The long-scheduled stop during his 10-day, three-nation tour seemed a safer way for Obama to acknowledge the global crisis over a flow of migrants from war-torn countries than if he’d made a similar visit earlier in his trip, which began in Turkey, at the doorstep of the Syrian crisis.
White House officials insisted that scheduling and logistics concerns, not political ones, dictated the schedule, and that bringing refugees to the heavily secured resort city in Turkey where Obama attended the Group of 20 summit would have appeared manufactured.
Coming in the wake of last week’s Paris terrorist attacks, Obama used the refugee center visit here to again assail what he has called a “spasm” of anti-refugee rhetoric in the U.S., which included House-passed legislation to raise new barriers to admitting refugees from Syria.
The Islamic State extremist group that holds large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria has claimed credit for the attacks.
“When people have a chance to hear the individual stories here, you will see the degree to which they represent the opposite of terrorism, the opposite of the despicable violence that we saw” in Paris, Obama said. “We should lift them up.”
There was “no contradiction” between welcoming refugees and ensuring America’s security, he added.
Malaysia is at the heart of another migrant crisis that predates the worst of the Syrian civil war. There were more than 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers here as of Aug. 31, according to the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, the majority of whom were from Myanmar — including the persecuted Muslim Rohingya — but also from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Somalia, Iraq and Syria.
The U.S. provided $1.3 million in humanitarian assistance to Malaysia in the past year, according to the White House, in addition to more than $6 million sent to the U.N. to help relieve the maritime migrant crisis here this summer.
Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security advisor, said this week that Obama’s visit to the Dignity for Children Foundation, where the president held the roundtable with the young adults, helped to highlight how nations must address the plight of refugees.
“Malaysia is a reminder that when we have stepped up in times of crisis and taken refugees, they’ve ended up contributing to American society,” he said. “This is not just something we do out of charity; it’s something that we benefit from because in the long run, these immigrant populations are part of what continues to renew America.”
He took great interest in the picture she was painting, a brown car next to a black building with yellow dots.
“You are an excellent painter,” he said, though he noted that some of the paint had found its way onto her hands. “If you’re an artist, it’s OK. You get a little messy sometimes.”
For more White House coverage, follow @mikememoli.