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American Dream

What Fleeing a War Zone Taught Me About the Power of Education

Thirty-eight years ago, amidst war and chaos, my family immigrated to the United States as political refugees. My parents, like generations before them, believed that the land of opportunity would compensate for the myriad of disadvantages we had as children of non-English speaking, non-reading and non-writing immigrants. They worked day and night, two and three jobs at a time, to support us as we put down roots for our new life here in America. They were driven forward by a deep-seated belief they instilled in us from our first few weeks in this new country: If my siblings and I immersed ourselves in the educational opportunities in front of us, we could fulfill our potential in a way they could never have dreamed in the country we left behind. At the heart of this dream was their trust in the American education system. My teachers believed in me and helped put me on the path to college. When I graduated, I decided to become a teacher so I could provide the same opportunities to a new generation of children. That same belief in the power of education is also what inspired me to get involved in local politics. I became an elected school board member because of my conviction that we all have a responsibility to do what we can to make our education system work for all kids. It’s the same spirit that I strive to bring to my work today as the president of a national nonprofit devoted to the ideal that every child deserves a high-quality education, regardless of address. As I reflect on the stories of Syrian parents sacrificing everything to find a better life for their children, I can’t ignore the parallels with the plight of my own family. Visuals of small, lifeless bodies washed up on beaches brought back memories of tearful stories about family members—brothers, sisters, babies—who were lost to the Mekong River as my people fled their villages in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. I am living proof that a mountain girl born on the dirt floor of a tent inside a refugee camp can be an American success story and grow up to give back to the adopted country she loves. But my story is not unique. I am one voice among hundreds of thousands of refugee immigrants who have embraced this opportunity to become the best Americans we can be. To me, that path starts with education. All of us who work in education have a unique opportunity to set an example for our fellow citizens by embracing our role in helping the next generation of political refugees realize their potential in this country that has given us so much. That is what my teachers did for me 38 years ago and that is what I hope all of us will do in the weeks and months ahead for this new generation of Syrian refugees. By embracing those who want nothing more than a chance at the American Dream, we reaffirm the enduring values that make America the beacon of hope to a new generation of children who will grow up to be the leaders of tomorrow.  
An earlier version of this post appeared on 50CAN's blog. Photo courtesy of Vallay Varro.
 
Vallay Varro
Vallay Varro was a founding state executive director. She now serves as the president of 50CAN.

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