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Is There Anything as Unfair as the Life of a 24-year-old Refugee?


You’d be hard-pressed to think of something more unfair than the life of a young refugee—especially one with no forthcoming prospects of returning home or finding a new one.

Consider: Because of circumstances beyond their control—place of birth, mainly, or the violent whims of hostile regimes, or mother nature—refugees are forced into a life usually reserved for convicted criminals. Confined to a tiny plot of land and forced to eat the same meal every day, refugees are denied the ability to plan for the future (get your hopes up at your own risk). To most refugees, fairness is a concept that’s far beyond moot. I’ve seen the muddy, cramped community that Samy calls home—and I’d pick jail in America over a refugee camp in Thailand any day.

Given all this, it's hard to understand how it is that Samy's disposition is so persistently sanguine. And yet it is. “Ah, yes, Brian, hello! How’re you?” Samy will say, as if we’ve bumped into each other at the supermarket. His tone is pretty consistent: Speaking in English flattens his vocal range into a drone, but his optimism inflects every sentence.

When I tell Samy I’ve been doing well, and ask him how he is, he says, “Yeah, yes, I’m good, thank you.” I’ve come to expect this exchange—we have it almost every week—and I look forward to it. It’s become a sort of ritual that I now know by heart. Also, I think I use that tone as a sort of barometer: As long as his optimism persists, my apparent failure to make much progress in getting him out doesn’t feel as bad.

We usually mostly talk about strategies to further the resettlement process, and what we’re working on to that end. But we also discuss what’s been going on in the camp, the latest news in Thailand, and the exploits of our few mutual acquaintances—my friend Tim, who I was traveling with when we met Samy, and Dan, an Australian journalist Samy knows. We even talk about these articles, about how I should handle sensitive topics, like whether I should use his real name. “It’s OK. I can’t go back to Burma anyways,” he says. (I used a pseudonym anyway.)

But the one thing that we never talk about are Samy’s plans for the future, his ambitions, and his aspirations. I’ve asked him about it, but the question doesn’t seem to register. I’ve mentioned Samy’s skill set before—a cook, a tailor, a carpenter, a multilingual translator; I’m telling you, the man would be unstoppable in America. But he only says that no, he doesn’t want to be a cook, that he doesn’t know.

Which brings us back to the whole unfairness thing. Here’s an intrepid, resourceful, and sharp-witted man who’s watching his prime years tick by, unable even to conceive of a career. And out of all of the different kinds of refugees, it might be the most unfair for someone like Samy—young, healthy, male. Because that means he’s lowest on the priority list for resettlement through the U.N.

Which means that even if he makes through the winding bureaucratic process to get recognized as a refuge—to even become eligible for a government to find him a new home—it’s still an uphill battle. Marina Sharpe, a human rights lawyer, explains: “Resettlement is an extraordinary measure. it’s not something you’re eligible for just because your life sucks. Resettlement is for people at risk, or people with medical problems. or for unaccompanied minors, or women who have been raped. If you’re a young healthy man, the odds are stacked against you.”

And while it makes sense that such cases get priority, it doesn’t change the fact that the term cosmic injustice was coined to describe how Samy doesn’t get a shot.

“I am stateless,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I am a stateless person.”
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