‘A Country of Immigrants’ on World Refugee Day

In my first post after my own graduation, I am pleased to host a blog by BC Law student and editorial assistant Marija Tesla, who writes about her family’s refugee story in honor of World Refugee Day.

I was six years old when politics became an integral part of who I am; it was then that I knew I wanted to work toward forging peace in the world. Growing up, my imaginary friends weren’t imaginary at all, they were the politicians whose names I heard every night, those who could not craft a compromise to achieve peace and stop a war I desperately wanted to end. It was there on my grandparents’ farm in a small village on the outskirts of Karlovac, Croatia in 1995 that I became a negotiator, addressing Franjo Tuđman, Slobodan Milošević, Alija Izetbegović—my own imaginary Dayton Accords. I escaped as a refugee in 1995, leaving Croatia and the farm that was my home.

Twenty-four years later, I am pursuing a career in law with a focus on global governance, human rights, refugee and immigration law, and negotiation—the very thing that was necessary in the Balkans in the early 1990s and is desperately needed today in Syria, Myanmar, Venezuela, and many other parts of the globe, including the United States of America. As a former refugee, I am aware of the interplay between local and global agents, and I understand the power and interconnectedness of both. I will always believe that government is about community, and I will continuously fight to protect the essence of what it means to belong to that community. After all, such communities, local and global, uprooted and rectified my life equally.

Marija with her parents before the war

Marija with her parents before the war

The first time I believed I had agency over my own life was when I moved to Akron, Ohio in 1999 with the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In Akron, I had teachers who saw beyond social class, ethnic origin, and refugee status. It is due to their help and belief in me that I became a straight-A student. Even though I recognized that my school was underfunded, the dedication of my teachers, in the face of this deprivation, made me believe that I was finally working in a system where justice and the rule of law prevail.

Ever since, I have made it my mission in life to do what Benjamin Ferencz said at the closing of the Lubanga trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), “We must try to restore the faith of children so that they may join in restoring the shattered world from which they came.” Being able to restore and heal ruptures in society, however, takes more than law or an understanding of politics, policy, or international relations. I knew this at a very young age, and this is why I spent my undergraduate career at Mount Holyoke College studying literature instead of politics or international relations, and it is why I have been working on a novel which focuses on the experiences of women and children during war, one that I want to read and one that has not been written. At my core, I believe in the importance of centering and amplifying the voices of the marginalized.

President Donald Trump mocking asylum seekers and saying, “I am very afraid for my life, I’m afraid for my life,” and “it’s a big fat con job,” is an insult to my life and story, and what I experienced as a child. I was Jakelin Caal Maquin’s age when I escaped as a refugee in an open trailer attached to the back of a tractor. No matter how much President Trump or others have tried to dehumanize my own experience and the experiences of other children and families who are seeking freedom and a better future for their children like my parents did many years ago, or to make us feel inferior, our lives are worthy and significant. As a country of immigrants, President Trump has failed us at every step, and we have collectively failed children like Jakelin Caal Maquin and so many others walking to freedom. On June 1, 2019, the beginning of Pride Month, we failed Johana Medina León, a transgender asylum seeker from El Salvador, who died after being held at a private Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in New Mexico for six weeks after passing the “credible fear” test as an asylum applicant.

But, I have been getting ready to take down this very xenophobia since I was six years old, and I am only getting stronger. I was born to both a Croat and a Serb parent and I have derived great power from being both in a society that wanted me to be one or the other. I also get my power from love of country, belief in the human spirit and resilience, and a deep belief in the rule of law. I forge forward, but I always give back and never leave anyone behind. This is my United States of America and my global community, one in which human rights matter and one in which a democratic state does not revoke the visa of the prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, or water down a United Nations resolution by removing “sexual and reproductive health” because it is a slippery slope to promoting abortion, instead of supporting survivors of sexual violence of war and conflict by providing them with the health care which is their basic human right. I will continue to fight for our collective future with the same resilience and dignity that I learned from my parents. Because if I don’t fight for the marginalized and less powerful on both the local and global stage, then who will?

One of the many things my parents taught me is that not everyone deserves to hear my story. While I have stowed this valuable wisdom from my parents, today, on World Refugee Day, I feel compelled to tell a small part of it so that those who choose, can read it, and maybe in their own ways amplify it. It was Mary Oliver who said, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” It is my experience, that all too often we don’t truly listen or pay attention to the stories like my own. Instead, we focus on the centers of power and on the lawyers, politicians, or policymakers, but they don’t carry the firsthand experiences. At least, most don’t. Personally, though, I have felt most visible when those with similar experiences shared their stories and took the time to hear my own. 

More: Read Marija’s paper “Hollow Promises in the Face of Slaughter: The Yazidi Genocide and the Path Toward Justice” at http://ssrn.com/abstract=3399108

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