June 20th marked World Refugee Day. Here in Washington there have been events throughout the month to bring awareness to the issues that refugees face here and abroad. Ihotu Ali, a Center for Progressive Leadership New Leaders Fellow, talks about the images of refugee women here in America. I had the pleasure of meeting Ihotu at a Message Development training a few months ago and of course, she is yet a another smart, fabulous black girl blogger.
After a college degree and several months of working in the political capitol of the Western world, I know a bit about power. Daily, I experience the power of crisp black suits, sleek cars, and boldly colored heels clicking their own new rhythms into the echo of marble halls.
However, Washingtonians may encounter an affront to this idea of power, through the advertisements of CARE, a nongovernmental refugee organization. In its trademark public campaign, CARE portrays a refugee woman, very young or very old, dressed in the tradition of her country and looking deep into the camera’s eye. The universal caption: “I Am Powerful.” In the midst of Washington, D.C., this may seem more a wistful ideal than reality. Reality teaches that even the most educated and top-earning women only make 72 cents on a man’s dollar, and that women around the world are most vulnerable to illiteracy, poverty, domestic abuse, and a lack of access to the handbag of characteristics which we call “power.” Yet these women stare out evenly from photographs and billboards to silently declare that they, even in a displaced state, are powerful.
A refugee woman may actually be the most powerful being you will ever meet. Whether she walked in tatters or designers, reality tells that she likely walked past dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people whom she left behind. People who didn’t make it out, and yet people exactly like her. She may recall their stunted journeys with every step. And yet she continues to walk. You might be unaware of the expression on her face. She may not disclose how many different lives she led, from fear to hope to indifference to ferocity. Reality provoked her to emotions of such nuance and contradiction that one would think humanity had not discovered them, before inhuman circumstances broadened the capacity of her human face. What you may see is blind faith, or a steeled persistence. You may have never seen what power it took to keep eyes so willing to remain open to new sights, a mouth so willing to continue to speak and engage and a face turned toward a new, possibly terrifying reality.
You may not see all this. Or you may equally see it in the faces of fellow American women who struggled for their power. But take a moment to look deeply into the power of these women. They may not have the traditional trappings of wealth or fame. And they may not vie to be recognized among the masses, nor do they wield their strength like a sword to bring others beneath them as they rise. Instead, consider their power as a catalyst, with which we all regard one another and ourselves with more clarity and humanity. This is a power of faith, hope, and resilience despite the most dire of circumstances. These women are not unbreakable, but they never allow brokenness to be a permanent state. They teach others the power to learn, to forgive, to accept and adapt.
As a friend and family member to such women, I often visualize their faces when I want to embody that power. What we all in Washington could learn from these women is not just the power to win the war or survive the battle. We already know this. They teach us the power to thrive, with an audacity of spirit, in the face of reality.