I remember that fateful afternoon, when a group of Congolese soldiers came to my house asking me to open the door. I was terrified and did not know what to do. I decided not to open the door.
When they would not leave, my older brother, who was living with me at the time, tried to talk to them. He was shot dead at the front door. After murdering my brother, the soldiers finally left, but I knew they would come back for me. I had to run.
I am a refugee, and there are millions around the world like me who would have preferred never to have been forced from their homes. To save myself, my wife and our three children, I had to make the most difficult decision of my life.
When we left the Democratic Republic of Congo, we were able to escape to Uganda, where we were granted refugee status by the United Nations in 2007. After waiting nearly nine years, we were finally given the chance to rebuild our lives, arriving in Lancaster in 2016.
Life in the U.S. wasn’t easy at first; we were strangers in a new place where we didn’t understand the culture or the language. But our new community in Lancaster welcomed us with open arms, helping us overcome these hardships and begin healing from past traumas. I am so grateful to the United States and my new community for giving me another chance at life.
Today we observe World Refugee Day, a time to celebrate the courage and resilience of refugees who have faced unspeakable hardship and gone on to serve their new communities. Even with a record-high displacement level, refugees are still left in precarious situations and in refugee camps, hoping for a chance like the one my family received.
Today is a day when we should take stock of how we can build welcoming communities that are inclusive and open to refugees, while also strengthening the ties within refugee communities.
The fear, hate and xenophobia toward refugees and immigrants that I read and hear about in national media do not reflect the Lancaster and the America I know. I am disheartened to see that my beloved new home is denying that same opportunity to others now facing similarly dangerous situations.
I always viewed America as a beacon of hope, and yet refugee admissions in the U.S. are at their lowest level in history. The administration is only on track to resettle less than half of the refugee admissions goal this fiscal year. Policy changes including executive orders banning Muslim immigrants and refugees show their intention to dismantle the refugee program while people like me, who have passed the most rigorous screening processes, wait in refugee camps for approval to travel — knowing they may never receive it.
The Lancaster and America I know are compassionate in their acceptance of those seeking shelter from some of the worst conflicts in history. That Mayor Danene Sorace is going to sign a World Refugee Day proclamation recognizing refugees’ contributions to our new home gives me hope that the America I dreamed of when I was granted resettlement to this country still exists.
I hope that other leaders will follow in Mayor Sorace’s example and speak out on behalf of refugees. I seek, myself, to welcome other refugees who are new arrivals. I raise my voice to support the rights of refugees through my work as a community advocate.
I urge our local leaders, state legislators and national policymakers to find the courage to stand with refugees today and every day, and demand that efficient refugee processing be reinstated. Only then will we truly reflect the welcome our country stands for.
Together, we can inspire welcome across the country and around the world.
Salim Amani is a former refugee who lives in Lancaster.