“Please, do you think you could help me get to Djibouti?” asked Hassan. I looked at him wondering how on earth he thought I could facilitate his travels from Mogadishu to Djibouti and onwards to the US where he wanted to study. This was 1992 and Hassan was a reluctant member of the security detail of the NGO I was working with. Quite frankly, despite carrying a G3 assault rifle, he had nothing of the demeanour of a gunman. Rather geeky-looking, and not a serious khat chewer, Hassan always volunteered for logistical work around the compound while hiding from his real duties as an escort for food convoys. But this was a time when Somalis had hard choices to make: either die from hunger like the rest of the country or pick up the gun proffered by the clan in exchange for food.
I’ve met people like Hassan all over the world, from Davao to Port-au-Prince, men, women, all aspiring to a better life in the “West,” embodied overwhelmingly by the United States. All reaching that defining moment in their lives when they needed that little bit of help to get to a better place. A decision that usually required leaving behind family, friends and country.
Empathy for such decisions seems to have slipped somewhat from the public conscience. The growing toxic narrative aimed at migrants is deeply concerning, and certainly unprecedented as far as I can recall throughout my 17 years with the International Organization for Migration. We seem to have forgotten that migration has been a coping mechanism from the beginning of time, and that with the compounding effects of climate change and the reality that displacement now lasts an average of twenty years, migration is bound to manifest itself even more dramatically in the future.
My hope is that there will be a gradual recognition of the evidence that migration is necessary and desirable and that this will lead to a more caring and positive discourse towards migrants. Migration is multifaceted and it is difficult to manage, but we’ve been to the moon and we are preparing to go to Mars, so we know we can think through problems and find solutions to these problems, no matter how polarizing or complex.
As a USAIM for IOM board member, I aim to ensure that IOM and its work gets better known by the American public. As the latest member of the United Nations family, our ‘brand’ may not be as recognizable as our sister UN agencies. The United States was one of the 16 founding members of IOM in 1951, then known as the Provisional Intergovernmental Committee for the Movement of Migrants from Europe. The IOM ‘story’ is one of engagement in addressing virtually every displacement crisis on the globe over the past 66 years: from Hungary to Colombia, Vietnam to Mozambique, Iraq to Afghanistan. It is also one of deep compassion, which has seen families reunited after years of separation due to conflict, victims of trafficking rescued and provided safe housing, migrants returned in dignity to their home countries and provided new livelihoods, seasonal workers provided legal migratory pathways, and so much more.
IOM needs the American people not only as financial contributors to its programs, but also for the potential that Private Sector partnerships hold: be they technological, advocacy-based or academic. Harnessing the innovative and forward-looking know-how of America’s private sector is crucial, not only to help IOM better gear itself towards improving its responses to today’s migratory crises, but also to anticipate those that we know will occur in twenty years’ time.
I don’t know whether Hassan ever made it to the US, or even Djibouti. But I do know that millions today have that same hope of reaching a place where they can not only live, but thrive and contribute to their new home.
Picture: Gregoire Goodstein and Somali nationals on an assessment mission in Somalia in 1992