Amidst a New Refugee Crisis, Students Find Welcome and Hope in America’s Capital

Aiken H.S. students Ankita Rai, Rojina Rai and Joyeuse Muhorakeye outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Commentary by Joyeuse Muhorakeye, Ankita Rai, Rojina Rai, students at Aiken New Tech H.S.

Aiken H.S. students Ankita Rai, Rojina Rai and Joyeuse Muhorakeye outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Photos by Aaron Parker, the students’ teacher and adviser.

Where we come from, where we are, and where we are headed is a complicated story. On a weekend in March, a month that celebrates women, two classmates and I were the beneficiaries of a learning opportunity to attend the National 4-H Youth Summit on Agriscience in Washington, D.C. As girls, we came from the refugee camps of rural Nepal and Rwanda. Now as teenagers, we stood at the epicenter of democracy’s successes and struggles in the United States. Where would these experiences lead us, as women, in a troubled world? That question remains.        

A month before our trip to Washington, we contacted the office of Ohio Senator Rob Portman about a tour of the U.S. Capitol. We explained that we were a group of Cincinnati high school students creating an agricultural action plan to combat food insecurity in our community, to aid those who are in greatest need. We also mentioned our past as refugees, and our interest in political solutions to food insecurity. To our surprise, we were granted a tour, despite the complications of COVID and, now, a war in Ukraine sparking a new refugee crisis: Democracy was under attack by an authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin of Russia, a dangerous bully with no regard for life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness. By now more than three million Ukrainians have had their lives disrupted and dreams deferred—they are refugees like us, on the run from the sudden dangers of Putin’s war.  

Joyeuse Muhorakeye, left, and her Aiken H.S. classmates taking photos in the Capitol Rotunda.

We were greeted at the Russell Senate Building by our guide Molly from Senator Portman’s office. As we moved through security and strolled down the marble hallways, we noticed few people. As we entered the Capitol Rotunda: also mostly empty, eerily quiet, but safe. A refuge for ourselves. On January 6th, 2021, this rotunda of democratic reflection was a place of war, another attack on democracy—but from within.

The students view Mountains and Clouds, a sculpture by Alexander Calder in the Hart Senate Office Building.

The unfortunate truth is that providing refuge is a necessary response to the evil that repeatedly invades our institutions, our homes, and our countries. Molly graciously extended our tour to the Hart Building—modern, austere—to provide context and contrast of the neoclassical ornateness of the Capitol. The towering abstract Mountains and Clouds sculpture by Alexander Calder fills the Hart’s spacious entry hall. The steel mountains symbolize the barriers each of us have faced in our lives, and the clouds, the elusive dreams we attempt to grab at every opportunity.

The Ukrainian flag on display in the offices of U.S. Senator Rob Portman.

We continued our tour back to Senator Portman’s offices, and there, hanging on the door, was the blue and gold Ukranian flag seen so often on our TVs and social media posts over the previous two weeks. Molly informed us that the $1.5 trillion omnibus bill was just passed the night before, with the support of Senator Portman, in order to keep our government open. A portion of those funds, $13.6 billion, was allocated to help Ukraine: $4 billion for internally displaced refugees in Ukraine, and another $1.4 billion for refugee migration assistance. Molly added that Senator Portman was flying to Poland that very evening to meet with those affected by Putin’s war at the Poland-Ukraine border.

There we were: former child refugees in the safe and secure hallways of the U.S. Capitol, while another factory of war was churning out new refugees, the same scenes we’ve witnessed so many times before. Just like our families who fled violence and genocide in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. Of Bhutan. Of Syria. Of Myanmar. Just like the Ukrainians of today. And while the world’s response to the European refugees has been different from what many of us experienced, we took hope from the fact that we stood in the very halls of legislative action. This is where decisions were made that could change the fate of people feeling violence within the United States and around the world. Here were powerful people who at least seemed to be listening, who saw the people’s suffering, and who wanted to help.

That help might be too late for those of us from the DRC, Rwanda, Nepal, Syria, Myanmar, and so many other places. But we hope the Ukrainian humanitarian aid package and those politicians of goodwill will also spread the idea that this this tragic pattern of human displacement must end.

Our tour concluded, we thanked our wonderful host Molly and the office of Senator Portman for providing us a little refuge during our four days in Washington, D.C. It was a place we wanted to be; we felt welcome and safe. We exited the U.S. Capitol, took some pictures as memories, and headed back to the bus that would ultimately take us home.

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