RIJ Taught Me How to Build a Better Future for All

Madison Gray, RIJ Intern

Hope for a brighter future. A sense of human dignity. A normal life.

As an intern with Refugees International Japan for the past three months, I have heard phrases like these repeated countless times.

My internship with RIJ has provided me with tremendous professional opportunities to create content for social media campaigns and this year’s Annual Review. Throughout all of these projects, our CEO, Jane Best, would consistently remind me that refugees, despite their abnormal situations, are normal human beings whose desires and ambitions for the future are not unlike mine: a place to call home, a community to provide love and support, work and education to provide a sense of dignity.

Before I came to Tokyo and interned with RIJ, I expressed all the concern and empathy for refugees expected out of a good, progressive American. I insisted that the United States accept Syrian refugees. I volunteered with after-school programs in Philadelphia that catered to young refugees. I engaged in discussion about the importance of educating young refugee girls.

And though I was well-intentioned and compassionate in these actions, I was focused intently on how different refugees were from me. My attempts to “help” were colored with pity and sadness for these people. I thought of them as only victims of conflict and instability. I didn’t consider their other identities as mothers, doctors, fathers, musicians, grandparents, soccer players, engineers, wives, teachers, husbands, and more. My American hubris even led me to expect that all refugees would be happy and lucky to live in the United States. In fact, most refugees do not want to leave their home region that they understand and love, even if given the opportunity.  

It’s tempting to simplify the narrative. The simplified American narrative of refugees would go something like this: “Bad things have happened to refugees. They are sad, and probably poor. We feel bad for them. We must give them money or allow them to enter our country. Then, they will be happy.”

During my time with RIJ, however, I have had the opportunity to explore an abundance of refugee narratives. I now understand that there is no single refugee narrative. Human beings are complicated and layered. And refugees are, first and foremost, human beings.

I encourage you to check out these narratives via the Refugee Collection (link) or RIJ’s book (link) or our Flickr page (link) and expand your perceptions of what a refugee “is” and “does”.

As I prepare to leave Tokyo and return to Philadelphia, this lesson will be one of my most important souvenirs. The United States that I am returning to has evolved in serious and frightening ways since I left it in August of this year. Hateful rhetoric has been validated and normalized, and my country is more divided than it has been in my lifetime. I hope to employ this lesson- that each human being deserves dignity and respect- as a tool to spread Love, and defeat Hate.


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