After serving 20 years in the Marine Corps, I’ve returned to my adopted home of St. Louis. It’s the place that first welcomed me when I came to the United States as a Bosnian refugee, and it’s a perfect example of how refugees can thrive in America. Like many other towns and cities across America, St. Louis has benefited from refugees injecting new life into the economy, the culture, and the community.
You see, despite what you might think from the political rhetoric of today, refugees are overwhelmingly assets to their communities, not drains on them. When I look around my adopted hometown, I see my own story reflected: refugees who came here, put down roots, raised families, and worked together to achieve the American dream—and by doing so, breathed new life into St. Louis.
But many refugees may never get the chance I did, thanks to Congressional gridlock and primitive political rhetoric. And the many cities and towns across the United States who would welcome them will miss out.
It doesn’t seem like so long ago that I visited the “Kamenjak” Bosnian refugee camp in Croatia. A few American volunteers and I spent time among thousands seeking safety from the devastating conflict surrounding us. I remember the families and the children, torn from their homes by the war, lives upended, yet still dignified and determined.
I remember being impressed by the young American aid workers who worked there—most barely older than I was at the time. And I remember asking myself, “Who would risk their lives to come here and help total strangers?”
I later had the good fortune and the privilege of coming to America to escape the war. And as I settled into my new American community, I realized that those aid workers were not atypical as Americans go—they embodied the ideals this country represents. I wanted to represent these ideals too. So I decided to serve the country that welcomed me the best way I knew how.
I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. Now retired 20 years later, after multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ve been honored to serve the country that did so much for me, and like so many refugees, proud to give back. I return to St. Louis as a proud Marine, a Bosnian Muslim, and above all an American still dedicated to serving my country and community.
The world is now faced with the worst refugee crises since the second World War. Over 65 million are displaced from their homes by conflict—just like I was so long ago. But if you turn on the news, for the most part you won’t hear our story of promise and achievement. Rather, politicians and talking heads paint a picture of refugees as threats to our security and drains on our resources.
This is verifiably false—mere verbal gymnastics and playing politics.
As a service member, I know that welcoming refugees makes our nation stronger, both by swelling the ranks of our citizenry with productive members of society, and by countering the narrative of our enemies, who would have the world believe that the United States is unwilling to extend its hand to the downtrodden.
And as a refugee, I know that my fellows are among the most grateful, the most patriotic, and the most willing to give back to their community and country.
This is a critical moment for the refugee crisis—both globally and at home. Next week, world leaders are gathering in New York for the United Nations General Assembly and President Obama’s Leaders’ Summit on Refugees. They are expected to make critical commitments to address the crisis, and I hope the administration rises to the occasion and demonstrates leadership worthy of the United States. But the president’s pledges won’t go very far without funding from Congress to back it up.
Before Congress goes on break at the end of the month, lawmakers should do their job to fully fund refugee resettlement programs. If we expect other nations to do their share in addressing the challenge, we must lead by example at home.
This week I’m speaking at the White House’s Honoring Refugee Integration event. Alongside many other brave refugees, I’ll be sharing my story, and the stories of so many like me. I invite Senators and Representatives to listen to these stories and the very real people who came to the United States as refugees, now giving back to the communities that welcomed them.
While my 20 years in the Marine Corps have come to an end, my commitment to the ideals that I fought for never will. I urge Congress to stand with me and many refugees enriching our nation and fight to uphold those ideals. This is the moment of opportunity for America to reaffirm itself as a beacon of freedom and to affirm our moral leadership in the world. This is a battle worth fighting, because refugees are willing to fight for it, too. Our courage, determination, and commitment has proved it time and time again.
Emir Hadzic retired from the Marine Corps after 20 years of service, and is involved with Veterans for American Ideals (www.vfai.org), a project of Human Rights First.
The White House’s Honoring Refugee Integration event will be livestreamed at 2:30 PM EST on Thursday, Sept. 15.
The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.