International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Sarah Wayne Callies: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

Actress and IRC Voice Sarah Wayne Callies is preparing to travel to Thailand this week to visit camps on the border with Myanmar, also known as Burma, where the International Rescue Committee assists uprooted Burmese who have fled political upheaval at home. Here she reflects on the hopes and dreams shared by refugees and Americans alike.

 
ATLANTA, Georgia - Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Most days I take these things for granted. When I consider them, it’s in reference to the refugees I work with and it’s life and liberty that I think about—the drama of fleeing one’s home for fear of torture, the injustice of being silenced for one’s political beliefs or ethnic affiliation. These are the flashy stories that make their way into magazines: the stuff they make movies about. They also make refugees seem really different from the rest of us. 
 
But this week I’ve been reading essays written by people living in the refugee camps on the Thailand/Burma border, and even though some of them have been there for 20 years, it’s the pursuit of happiness that everyone seems to be writing about. The writers articulate, over and over, the desire to get an education and a job: “If I resettle in the U.S.A., I need to look for a part-time job…and I will save any extra money for my education.… I will go to a teachers college and I will learn about the psychology of children. When I get a degree I will apply for a preschool or primary school.” Another refugee writes, “In the U.S.A., I will attend a technical college and finish my degree…. At the same time, I will work in a factory or a company as a temp. After I have gotten a certificate, I am going to work at a full-time job for three years to save money. After that I’m thinking about attending a business university until I get an MBA. If I get an MBA, I’ll apply to a company as a manager. If they do not take me, then I will do my own business.” I’ve been struck time and again by how driven the writers are by the simple desire for schooling and work: the pursuit of happiness. 
 
These refugee writers sound like the American middle class that politicians are constantly sounding off about, the people I see at my local swimming pool every week—the fathers who take their kids in the middle of the day because they’re out of work, the mothers who bring a bag lunch because they can’t afford a treat of burgers and fries at the concession stand. Times are hard in the United States right now, as Clint Eastwood so eloquently pointed out during the Super Bowl. A lot of people are looking for jobs, going back to school, desperate for the opportunity to make a decent wage doing meaningful work. Is it possible that despite all of the differences between refugees and the rest of us, we’re all after the same things? 
 
And if we are after the same things, is it asking too much to help others when we can hardly help ourselves?  When we have so little—so little money, so little time, so little energy at the end of the day—why expend any of it on the desperately poor thousands of miles away? Why offer them refuge in our country when jobs for Americans are already scarce? 
 
These are scary questions. If we’re not careful, our answers will be selfish and self-serving: that by extending ourselves to others we will have less for our own. But in my opinion, I think these questions are worth asking in scary times; and perhaps we all must find our own answers according to the dictates of our own consciences.  
 
For what it’s worth, here are my answers: First, we give because we have received. Almost all Americans have ancestors who arrived on U.S. shores from somewhere else. Most of our ancestors were seeking a better life, plain and simple: a chance for an education, a chance to work and raise a family in peace. 
 
My own grandfather came to the U.S. when he was a boy, fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe. I owe a great debt to this country that took him in and gave all of his descendents the opportunity to lead the lives we now enjoy. The best way I can think to repay this debt is to help others in a similar predicament. 
 
My second answer to these questions—the why should we help questions—is that America offers asylum to refugees because that’s what a great nation does. I understand that patriotism is not fashionable in all circles. But providing solace to the persecuted strengthens both givers and receivers. Isn’t searching our souls for what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our natures” a part of what defines us as Americans? It’s who we have always been, and it’s who I hope to be as a person and as a citizen. The more difficult the times, the more disciplined our efforts must be to reach beyond the shadows of our own fears and extend ourselves to those less fortunate. 
 
The refugees’ essays tell me that the people in the camps want what the people at the pool want: an education, a job, a family. They want the chance to strengthen our country through participation in our economy, our democracy, and our largesse. Perhaps the best way forward is to help each other get to where we are going…together. 
 
Check back later this week for a new post from Sarah Wayne Callies. Read what she's posted so far here.

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4 comments

Comments

Dear Sarah, This beautiful

Dear Sarah, This beautiful article reminds me of the comment that Wentworth made about you:"Sarah was a model of grace and integrity." It also reminds me of the apothegm of Gandhi:" Be the change you want to see in the world", which is the quote of your role Dr.Sara Tancredi in Prison Break. I sincerely admire and respect you. Wish you all the best life can offer and all the luck in your career. BTW, Dr.Sara Tancredi is my favourite female role.

Hi Sarah~huge fan of

Hi Sarah~huge fan of yours!! I'm so excited to see your words here and they are full of respect and compassion. Keep writing please~~ Wish you all the best! Love from your chinese fangirl~>3<

Aside from how enlightening

Aside from how enlightening your blogs about your experiences with the refugees are, if you ever stop acting (please, NO) you could certainly write for a living. Your writing is so fluid and descriptive... I feel like I know those families about which you write. I've been an IRC supporter for several years -- it's tops in my book. BTW, TWD is my favorite TV show!!!

Sarah, What a great example

Sarah, What a great example to follow! Currently it's so easy to be selfish and seek only the satisfaction of our own welfare without even noticing the presence or the suffering of those around us. But the biggest mistakes made by the world society is to think that we are self sufficient. John Donne, an intuitive poet of the sixteenth-century, in his famous text 'Meditation XVII', wrote a beautiful passage, later used by American writer Ernest Hemingway: "No man is an island, entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind...". These beautiful words should be an inspiration to all of us ... just so I think attitudes like yours would be more common. You know, have the opportunity to help a person without thinking how it could benefit me or expecting anything in return, just for the pleasure of helping. Well, I wish you all the best and I hope everything runs well your trip to Thailand.

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